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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Go Super-Slo-Mo Till It's Time

Today’s Word Count: 269,988 (1545 words gone!)

Page Count: 1009

“If animals could speak, the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow; but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much.”

-- Mark Twain

As I write this post, my cat is striking the pose in my blog banner. He has many poses, all of which I find ridiculously precious, but it’s always auspicious to see his life imitating my (I mean, his) blog. This cat is my serenity icon and a constant reminder that slowing down is good and yet saying too much is not.

I’m getting pretty boastful about my slashing, but it’s happening of its own accord, finally after years of blindness, as if someone hit a switch in my brain and now I see, I see! Purple prose has turned neon, flashing “CUT ME!” whenever I edit.

Here’s some of the noisy, tacky stuff that’s gotta go. In a prior draft, I wrote a line of dialogue where a student clamors for a teacher’s attention. Following that you read, “His urgency made everyone pause and turn.”

Ugh! Doesn’t “turn” imply a “pause”? Then, soon after that:

“With great flourish he whipped out a sheet of notebook paper where he’d drawn a perfect caricature…”

Doesn’t the verb “whipped” say plenty? And since this character doodles through every class up to this point, do I need to mention the “notebook paper”?

Now it reads. “His urgency made everyone turn. He whipped out a sheet where he’d drawn a perfect caricature…”

Once 24 words, now 16. Not brilliant writing, just cleaner.

But before I beat myself up too much for overwriting, I have to honor the writing process: Certain writers need to see every frame in super-slo-mo during the early stages. And like Orson Welles used to say in that Paul Masson wine commercial, “We will sell no wine before its time.” All in good time, this novel.

When I write, I slip into the altered consciousness zone where I live through a scene. Every little gesture plays out in my head. This can make a scene both vivid and ten pages too long. That’s a lot of what I’m cutting.

Some sports like baseball, basketball, and tennis struggle with whether or not to go to instant replay. I’ll swear by super-slo-mo until the World Series, the playoffs, and Wimbledon. If the Big Game is the novel itself, the final draft, readers just want you to play the darn thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (blessings on the life and works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who left us August 3, 2008) or Ian McEwan’s Saturday; the long-day novel is just as compelling as a Michener saga. It’s the choice of the right words and moments, not every single gesture, that readers want.

Speaking of readers: if you believe like most writers do that one cannot read without writing and write without reading, please visit my colleague Bob Mustin’s blog and see what meaty books he’s perusing and what treasures he’s discovered that can help a writer. Bob and I met the summer of 2003 when we both attended NCWN’s Elizabeth Daniels Squire Writers in Residence Program, led by the wonderful Doris Betts.

A final thought: I heard a story about a famous writer who spent ten years writing a novel of 1,000 pages. The author’s partner asked the author to narrow the story down to one word. The author did. Then the partner said, “Now take out everything that isn’t about that.” The author has now published the novel of 200 pages. But what do you do with a teeming, hyperactive mind that sees connections everywhere? I found the abstract word from which my novel springs and somehow I can still link every scene to it. Right now, what gets me cutting is the drag effect of super-slo-mo scenes. Hey, whatever keeps you moving.

I’d be really happy if I could slash this novel in half. Only 507 pages to go.

Today's Writing Goal: I beat my last writing goal by 245 words. I’ll cut 2,000 words by the next tally and strive for greater connectivity among scenes – cause leading to effect leading to cause.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Choose one of the following thirty-second-or-less events and describe all the interesting people, places, and things that might appear during that thirty seconds.

-- A girl drops her ice cream cone from the fifty-secondth floor of a building
-- A runner competes in a fifty-yard dash
-- A contestant sings a song to audition for a part
-- A dog chases a cat through several streets of a neighborhood

After you write the scene, talk with a partner and choose the most interesting moment. Now, slow that moment down and write four sentences describing everything that can happen in that very few seconds. What does the person or animal see, feel, smell, hear, taste, and touch during that few seconds?

Secondary and Adult:

Choose one of the following sets of characters (parent and child, two lovers, or a teacher and a student) and one of the following issues (food, space, or time) and write a dialogue. Begin with a line of dialogue and write for ten minutes as fast as you can, letting character names, histories, and motivations emerge as necessary during the fighting. Choose an omniscient point of view for now and record every thought each character has privately; describe every gesture; record every detail of the setting as your characters move through it.

After ten minutes is up, fold up your paper(s) so you can’t read the scene. On a separate piece of paper fill in this blank: This story is about ___________ (insert abstract noun). The noun must be the intangible idea-word such as love, peace, jealousy, salvation – you get the idea. This is word is your “Home Base” to which you will return.

Now open up your paper again and home in on the parts that best communicate this idea. Strike out any details that don’t get at this idea. If you are having trouble homing in, share the word with a partner and ask him/her to do some cutting for you.


Unknown said...


Enjoyed your latest post. I too am on a similar quest to screen and clean. I have eliminated 97 pages and 25,000 words and still have half of the novel to go.

It is truly(not really needed) amazing how after reading the same words fifteen times, one can still cut, cut and cut some more.

Even though it's my "baby" I don't feel I'm subjecting it to cruel and unusual punishment. I think of it a bariatric type of experience- permanent word loss.

The bottom line all us would be novelists have to face is do we want to by like John Grisham or Tom Wolf. We have to choose between plot/story versus character driven. I'm trying to fit somewhere in the middle. Will I succeed?


Lyn Fairchild Hawks said...

Hi, Archibald (hmm, do I know you?),

Of course you'll succeed. Your word-slashing tenacity and ability to ignore the words that hit the floor says you're made of sterner stuff, the stuff that makes novelists. You've already accepted that it's "permanent word loss." Nice analogy, bariatric. Of course, you know that doesn't work if the patient isn't psychologically on board. So if we extend your metaphor, that means that we're not allowed to stuff a bunch more pages into the lean vessel we just slimmed.

I'm not sure you have to choose between plot and character. Most books and films we love do both well. Such as Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities.

I have long to go before I can claim 25,000 words gone but you're inspiring me to go for the gold in this Biggest Loser competition!

Thanks for commenting!