Working on the next installment in my series about Columbus private eye Andy Hayes, I realized I had to make a few adjustments. Eleven thousand of them, to be precise. That’s the number of words I just cut out of the work-in-progress first draft. It was a painful decision. But they had to go.
I’ve always admired writers who can juggle two or more plots at a time and I’ve tried to do the same. But sometimes it just doesn’t work no matter your attachment to the prose. Making this situation even harder, the offending passages involved a character from my first novel who readers have wanted to see again. I wanted to know more about her too. Yet it was becoming clear as my word count rose perilously above the intended target that something–someone–had to go. I saved the material, of course, and it may reappear elsewhere someday. Despite the pain of this edit, it feels like the right thing to do. It’s the revising equivalent of a New Year’s commitment to lose some weight. And look how well I’ve done so far!
This exercise got me thinking about rules to follow when writing, especially squeezing fiction into a schedule that includes the little matter of a full-time job. Here’s what I came up with.
_ Keeping things lean is better because it drives the narrative. As Mickey Spillane said, people don’t read mysteries to get to the middle. They read them to get to the end.
_ Keeping things lean is better because it allows for richer character development. As Margaret Maron said, characters aren’t checkers to be pushed around the board of one’s plot. “If a character isn’t alive to you, he will never live for your readers.”
_ Keeping things lean is better because it focuses the writer (at least this writer). As Jan Burke said, you sometimes have to get rid of things that feed your ego but aren’t good for the book. “Leaving something in just because it demonstrates how clever you are is something like giving chocolate to a dog. Understandably, it gives you pleasure, but it’s not good for the dog.”
That’s not to say that a lengthy, multi-plot and multi-character mystery novel isn’t in my future. For now, this surgery, however painful, has been a reminder that in writing, as in other complicated endeavors ranging from cooking to training for marathons, less is sometimes more.