I came across a random tweet this week that probably sprang from a blog post I didn’t actually read, but the gist was that the aspiring novelist should hack ruthlessly at the MS until every sliver of self-indulgent prose is removed and the story shines forth in slim and graceful clarity. Well this is hardly news. We have all slain darlings in our time and rightly so, but I think the hack and hack again approach can be dangerous. I think it might even have dealt my first novel a mortal blow.
I’m all for editing but there are different kinds of editing – and I think there are different kinds of writer, so possibly one size of advice does not fit all. I remember a friend who went on a writing course coming back to tell us that some writers need to cut their work, others typically need to fill it out. It has taken me a while, but I’m beginning to think I’m in the latter category.
You see I’ve always had trouble finding the shape of my story, so I often find myself ditching entire scenes or groups of scenes (backstory, unwanted sub-plot, a character who doesn’t really do anything) when the real plotline starts to emerge. And like most people I was taught to continue the cutting process at the micro level – going through each scene and ultimately each sentence to make sure there was no clutter to get in the way. Add the need to ‘show not tell’ and the scenes in my first novel got shorter and shorter as adverbs, speech tags and all incidental detail got shaved off.
However, the writing of Kettle went a little differently. The first half was established over a long period and rewritten several times before part two (and most of the plot) was added. This made me aware that the second half had had a lot less attention lavished on it. The scenes were a little cursory. Yes, they needed filling out. I am now on Novel Three and this time I made a conscious decision to concentrate on getting the story together, putting only as much in each scene as was required to see where the next scene would go, intending to go back and ‘fill out’ at a later date. Needless to say I’ve had a bit of a change of heart and have decided to reshape what I have done so far, and this bears out the idea that the more often I look at a scene, the closer in I feel to the characters, the setting, the whole experience – and the longer it becomes.
Of course that’s not to say that some things have to go, only that my style is to enlarge as I write rather than reduce. The kind of darlings I steel myself to cut are those really wise and telling sentiments you realise belong to me, the author, not the character. I’m also phobic about adverbs (really hard to leave a single one in there) and very cautious with adjectives. I still like to excise anything that doesn’t contribute to the story. But a book needs more than action, it needs atmosphere and emotion too, so we do need description, imagery (not my strong point) and bits of ‘extraeneous’ action to convey what dialogue might not do alone. The final edit of my first novel, was, I think, too spare, so that at least one reader felt she didn’t ‘get’ the heroine.
Kettle, by the way (still getting some lovely reviews ) has stubbornly remained a book of two halves with a lot of people preferring one half to the other. Strangely not all of them plump for the same half, so if you’ve read it, I’d be interested to know what you think!