Revision Work: Cutting

From aesthetics incorporated at

From aesthetics incorporated at

“Kill your darlings.”  I’m not sure who said that infamous quote first, but it’s followed me throughout my writing career (so far).  The truth in those three words is profound and boundless.  I am staring into its eyes, nose to nose, as I work on the revisions for Perceval’s Secret.

My editor, Patricia, articulated something that had been nagging at me for some time, i.e. I didn’t need all the description that I’d written about setting as well as other characters.  She warned me to always keep in mind that Evan’s POV was the POV I’d chosen to be the closest to, therefore, the reader would see the world through his eyes.  Would he be as knowledgeable about the city of Vienna?  Would he be so interested in fashion, both women’s and men’s?  Would he notice as much detail about food?  Or anything else?  What would his attention focus on?

This is a really good exercise for any writer while revising and polishing a manuscript: the point of view read-through.  It’s normal for the writer to write from his own POV, especially when using omniscient third POV.  It’s easy to fall into the mistake of being omniscient as the author and forgetting that you’ve chosen to focus the POV through one of the characters, usually the protagonist.  Every time the POV focus changes, attention needs to shift to what that POV character would focus on in the world around him or her.  Everything else becomes extraneous.

For three-quarters of Perceval’s Secret, my omniscient third POV focuses through Evan’s mind and POV.  For the other quarter, I shift to one of two other characters, his mind and POV, for a while.  I chose this shifting specifically to create suspense as well as to reveal those other two characters.  They are each important to Evan for different reasons.  What Patricia had cautioned me against, i.e. forgetting to write from the character’s focus, is a common mistake and relatively easy to fix.

Most of the cutting I’m doing relates to this issue.  I am tempted to have two versions of the novel, much as movie directors do for film: the published version and the author’s uncut version.  Patricia commented that my description enriched the setting and put the reader right there with the characters, but I’d done too much.  I could prune it a lot and not lose the sense of place and the atmosphere I want.  So, that’s physical description, i.e. details of a location, people, clothes, food, etc.

Another focus issue relates to what Evan is thinking.  This is a trickier issue.  It’s important to show what he’s thinking to reveal his character and move the story forward.  The determining test should be this: How does this passage reveal his character and move the story forward?  If it only reveals character, or some little tidbit about the life of a conductor, it’s not essential and can be cut.  I have a tendency to begin chapters with this kind of description of what he’s thinking.  Sometimes, however, I’ll choose to leave it in because it not only reveals character, it also reveals the important conflict of America vs. music in his motivation.

Once I’ve determined what job a passage is doing, I can decide what needs to be cut and what needs to be kept.  I have a tendency to do the cutting in multiple stages, i.e. I’ll do an initial edit.  Then I’ll think about the chapter overnight and return to do another edit, cutting out more words.  As I progress through the manuscript, I’m thinking about how the story builds, and will return to streamline earlier passages in order to increase the pace and suspense leading to something later on.

David's Hall at Accademia

David’s Hall at Accademia

This work is difficult.  It leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding of my characters and their motivations, and that’s important.  But as difficult as it is, I think of it as more what writing is than getting a first draft down on paper.  I picture in my mind the main hall of the Accademia di Bella Arti Gallery in Florence, Italy, where Michelangelo’s David stands at the far end, and on either side of the hall leading to him are examples of unfinished sculptures the great artist was working on, figures emerging out of the marble as if out of water.

Back to work…..

emerging sculpture

An unfinished sculpture by Michelangelo


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