Last night, I decided to delete a chapter and a new character from the book.
Don’t freak out! Doing this hasn’t set me back at all. To the contrary, getting rid of an entire chapter and a new character who wasn’t exactly helping is incredibly healthy. Particularly for a first time writer who intends to submit to agents with strict guidelines for manuscript length; part of the reason I’m rewriting War of Exiles in the first place is that the original version was over 100 pages too long.
That wasn’t the entire problem though; it was too long and there were so many unnecessary plot points that I didn’t know what to delete and what to leave in. It was like looking at a tower of bricks loosely stacked on a tangle of wooden chairs and being told that you had to pull out half the bricks and chairs without bringing down the tower. In contrast, deleting Chapter 4 when I’m only up to Chapter 7? Getting rid of Ozi entirely? Saving him for a short story? Completely worth it.
In retrospect, the inability to make this kind of cut is what left me with a 461 page, bricks-and-chairs-golem of a first novel. And to me, it’s one of the things that separates an amateur from a writer who really wants to improve—the ability to be your own worst critic. You can sit back and judge everything else until your face turns blue (which most amateur writers do all the time anyway), but until you can do the same thing with your own work, you’re just wasting your own time.
And this is true for every kind and level of writing; after being a college tutor for nigh on seven years, I can tell you that the major flaw of students is a very common inability to pass judgment on their own work or deal with it from others. The amount of times I’ve had students get impatient with me because they didn’t want to acknowledge a grammatical error as a mistake is absolutely uncanny.
But really, nearly everyone is guilty of this crime. No one wants to accept criticism, particularly because half of the writers out there, who all seem like worthy readers, are usually waiting to shit on your work so they can feel better about themselves; I’ve actually had a trusted writer chuckle as he dismissed a short sample—of my outline. I remember sending it to him and thinking, “Do I even need to add ‘it’s an outline and I’m sending it to you because I need real, constructive criticism, or else why the hell would I send it in the first place; this isn’t to show off at all—I need help, not a snap and a headroll?’ No. He’s a good writer. He’s actually going to help, not take this tiniest opportunity to be a shithead.”
Lesson learned? All writers are readers, but not all writers are good editors. And, also, some writers are such amateurs that they’re absolutely in love with passing judgment because it makes them feel special. More important lesson learned? I’ve been that asshole reader. And, to the person whose manuscript I read, I’m sorry you had to deal with me being a total amateur.
Getting back on topic though, an inability to proofread and copy edit is only the basest facet of the amateur writer’s folly. A more mature form is the inability to trim; despite what many people think, the important difference between “we will have been there ten times” and “we’ve gone ten times” isn’t the subtle nuance of tense that imparts a delicate nugget of specific meaning. No, the important difference here is that “we will have been there ten times” wastes the reader’s time and bores the crap out of them. In my experience, there has almost never been a time where a flowery phrase couldn’t be reworded and trimmed into something far more engaging.
Take something like, “Then, he pivoted to his left, took out his well-sharpened dagger, and lifted it up as he struck!” With something like this, the writer felt it was necessary to give you a lot of extra details. The subject didn’t just pivot, he “pivoted to his left”. His dagger was “well-sharpened”. He “lifted it” as he struck. Fine, but none of those details are necessary. Look at how much more engaging this simple edit is: “He pivoted, drew his dagger, and struck!” There’s no filler to dull down the intensity and slow the action. And all of that nonessential information should be provided by other means anyway; we should know from this character’s personality that his dagger is well-sharpened. We should know that he’s a skilled fighter who would know which way to pivot—and really, in a basic, human way can infer that he pivots in one direction anyway and it really shouldn’t matter which way he chooses regardless. It shouldn’t matter how he lifts his dagger either, for that matter. But sometimes, people fall in love with the very particular scenes and actions they have in mind. And the inability to let go of that, to make scenes simpler and more engaging—the inability to embrace the things unsaid—is the heart of the amateurs’ inability to edit themselves.
And somewhere further down the line, there’s the inability to remove whole chapters, characters, and their plot lines.
Now, am I saying I’m the most epic writer of all time? No. I’m just saying that I’m incredibly glad I cut out Chapter 4 and Ozi. I know I’ve got a long way to go to being an author, but I think I’m getting there.