Pruning

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And somehow, I’m back there. Back to my historical novel that had been shelved for four months. And I know how to fix it and I’ve even found a way to fix it that doesn’t make me want to throw up. Am I writing new material? Yes. Am I taking a lot of material out? Also yes. Am I hurting my story? No.

Spring is around the corner, here. The weather report doesn’t look like it (overcast, high 43, low 34, chance of rain day…after day…after day…after day) but it must be, because the willows are budding and I’m on loratadine. For me, having spring come feels like being let out of a cage. For my husband, it feels like standing in front of a cage, waiting for a very large monster to be let out. Our acreage was neglected in the years before we acquired it. Some of the tangle we’re keeping–blackberries give fruit, hardhack is beautiful and native, and some of the willows mind their own business. Other things like crack willows and Scotch broom have to go, and better sooner than later.

So, afternoon after afternoon, if business isn’t too oppressive he’s out there with his chainsaw, cutting things down. The burn pile is ten feet tall, and doesn’t count the quarter-acre of felled broom waiting to be added.

This is pruning the bad stuff. The stuff that obviously shouldn’t be there.

In a historical novel, that stuff includes (1) the buds of storylines that never came to fruition, so why bother keeping them, and (2) scenes written to show off your research.

Yes, I had those. Lots of them. Especially at the beginning. GodDAMmit I was so sure I didn’t, but after four months lying fallow, there they are, peeking out of the book’s soil like green monsters. Cut ’em down. Cut ’em all down.

Then there’s the selective pruning for the health of what’s left. We’ve been watching episodes of Gardener’s World in the evenings, and as Monty Don says: for the health of a plant and the whole garden, it’s better to prune too much than too little. Don’t be afraid to cut back hard, as long as you know that what you’re cutting won’t kill the plant.

When I began to rework this novel, I was cutting things that killed the plant. The character-establishing scenes, the narrator’s voice, the budding romance between the leads. It made me feel sick. It just didn’t seem right, but didn’t Monty Don say to cut, cut, cut…?

Wrong kind of cutting, I decided. Rather, I am now carefully pruning those scenes. Can I remove a paragraph or two where my research is showing? Yes. Idle chatter that didn’t really develop the characters that much? Yes. Can I take the whole second half of this scene and move it later on in the book, where the total removal of a noxious-weed scene has left a bare patch? Most definitely yes. Let it grow there, where there’s space for it. Much better.

The burn pile is 15,000 words and counting. I think the book is better for it. Fingers crossed.

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7 thoughts on “Pruning

  1. Good work! I find cutting word count so cathartic 🙂 The words are never wasted though. I think you have to go through them to get to the right ones. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

  2. I admire your patience waiting four months to reread and edit. I’m going to do a put-aside-and-forget shortly (it won’t be the final one, though). I’m hoping to make two weeks. It’s awesome to hear how much more you can see about what should and shouldn’t be there after some time away. And, unlike broom, when you cut unnecessary scenes they don’t grow back.

    • Oh, there’s no virtue here. I’d sent the book to my agent, who had sent me a list of critiques that essentially added up to “this is unusable as is; make it something completely different.” So for four months I couldn’t think about the book without feeling ill. Then I got my idea for fixing it.

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