Wednesday is Bad Advice Day at Bill and Daves: The Cutting Principle

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour



My friend Richard Gilbert is working on a fascinating book about his years farming, and writes:  “Well, I’ve made it through a light edit and effort to trim. Great: I cut 52 pages, the bulk of it including most of one chapter.  That still leaves a 467 page ms., Lord.  But I think I will pitch at that length.  At this stage of completion and polish, isn’t it okay to do that? I don’t want to be an amateur or anything, but I am afraid any more cuts to get it even to 450 (my avowed pitching goal) might cut what an agent-editor-publisher would like. Or am I just being pathetic?  Mine must be a common dilemma–a writer knowing his ms. is long but fearful of cutting it himself past a certain point.  (And, really, unable to, because he can’t see it fresh or from enough distance. I mean, if I put it in a drawer for ten years this would be easy, with its own drawbacks, of course.)  I think my question is difficult because I have cut my book and do think it needs to be cut more but am just in that quandry of not being sure what else must go.  What if I cut what someone would like?  Sounds kind of lame, too; wouldn’t a pro know? But, hey, editors and producers exist for a reason.”

Richard, you’ve come to right place for bad advice.  I’m always turning in manuscripts at massive length, leaning on my editors.  Because, as you say, at a certain point it’s impossible to know what must go.

My college sculpture professor, Gary Wojick, looked over a outlandish creation of mine (a twelve-foot-high monstrosity of salvaged planks and nails and moldings and wood scraps), called the class over for a talk.  He told us that there are two kinds of sculptors, additive and subtractive.  Additive is a careful increase, this blob of clay then that one, this steel truss and then that one, till you’re done.  Nothing extra, everything according to plan. Subtractive sculpture, he said, starts with an undifferentiated block of marble, and removes everything that isn’t David, as Michaelangelo famously said.  Gary figured I’d made my block of marble—now it was time to take out the pieces that didn’t fit.

Writers, same thing.  There are people who proceed sentence-by-perfect-sentence through their work, lingering over each till it’s perfect and only then proceeding.  You couldn’t cut their work with a laser.  At times I work like that, but only when I know exactly what I’m up to, writing a book review, say, or other journalism, something that’s fully formed in my head before I start, usually something practical.  I wrote Writing Life Stories very quickly with almost no extra verbiage.  I’d been teaching that subject (creative nonfiction) for many years, and knew chapter to chapter what I wanted to say with precision.

But mostly I don’t write like that.

I tend to write big early drafts.  I write a lot, at least three to one, usually much more, put forward a mass of material.  For any given 20-page short story I’ve generally written at least 100 pages.  While I’m in that phase, I passionately believe I’m making the story, but what I’m actually doing is making the block of marble.  After the rough draft, after the first draft, after the show draft (this might be your pitch draft, Richard), after a couple more based on comments from readers, I’ve got it.  My block of marble, I mean, not my story.  Inside the block, my characters are complete.  Inside it, my story waits.  Time to get out the the rough tools, hammers and chisels, then the finer ones, woodblocks and awls, then the sandpaper, and last, when the story has emerged, and only then, the polisher, fine pumice rubbed lovingly over a work I know to be complete.

How do I know it’s complete?  Well, I wanted a David, and there he is.

Ha.  More likely, I wanted a David, but the chimp I’ve come up with will have to do.

So, how to cut when you know your project’s too long?  In nonfiction, it’s useful to come up with a cutting principle for the project at hand.  What’s this book really about?  Make a list of ten:  It’s about my life as a great painter.  It’s about the materials I use, their provenance and qualities.  It’s about my career, which was like the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.  It’s about the people who helped me along the way.   It’s about those who worked against me.  It’s about the philosophy of art, or mine, anyway.  It’s about my growth from brash young painter to wise old carp.  It’s about my family.  It’s about specific paintings of mine.   It’s about the New York art scene.

And then decide, that even as interesting as all of those areas are, two or more must go.  That’s your cutting principal, arbitrary or no.  Anything about the New York art scene must go.  Anything about family must go.  You’ll save those for a later book, tell yourself.  Because it’s hard to throw away even chips of beautiful Parian marble.

For fiction, the cutting principle is often applied to a sub-plot and to all the characters involved in that subplot.

When my novel The Smallest Color was turned into a screenplay by a really great screenwriter (the project eventually was dropped, like most, but more about that later)(See, I could have gone on about my novel and the Hollywood option money and etc., but that’s for a different post, and so my cutting principle won’t allow it), several pairs of minor characters were combined to cut down the cast and simplify things.  Nowadays I know to do this myself.  Why can’t the brother and the murderer be the same person?  There—forty pages developing the separate murderer can be cut.

Here’s another way to think about it, involving a certain person who shall remain nameless, but whom my friend Jeff Young called the get-readying-est person he’d ever met.  Who when we’re in a hurry to get out the door, finds all sorts of things to do.  There’s limited time.  There’s a clear goal.  Say, get to the beach by noon before the lot’s full and the gates close.  If you have one hour to get ready, you must use the hour to get ready.  That means doing things that move you toward the beach and not doing other things, even though they might be satisfying (brushing the dog), even though they might be important (folding the laundry), even though they might seem complementary (going on line and ordering beach towels).  No, you just make the lunch, get the bathing suits in the bag, find the beach toys, load the car.

A friend of mine years ago worked as an editor at Reader’s Digest Condensed Books in Westchester County, New York.   (Was the location important for me to mention?  No?  Cut it?)(Was my history with this friend important?  Not really, I guess, if we have to get to the beach, though she was a really, really interesting person, a grad-school friend whose name has escaped me—I hope she’ll see this and write me.)  Her job most of the time was to take a popular novel and cut it in half, not so difficult.  Her job at other times was to take a great novel, a very successful and beloved novel, and cut it in half.  To do this, she’d identify the main trajectory of the thing—main plot, main characters, main themes, etc.—and cut absolutely everything else.  Another trick she used was a movie trick, too: jump cuts.  The author might have spent 20 powerful and delightful and unfailingly lyrical pages getting his people from New Jersey to Maryland, but the cut version just makes the leap.

My book Temple Stream was 600 pages at one point.  (It ended at under 300.) My editor, Susan Kamil at Dial, brash and brilliant, called to say “I love the beavers, hun.  The beavers are great.  But this book is turning into a book about beavers.  You must have 200 pages on beavers.  You can write book about beavers later.  But cut the fucking beavers!” She did the cutting for me, actually, broad strokes that smote 200 pages and yet left quite a bit about beavers in the book, but only about beavers that I’d actually encountered on the stream.

Elsewhere in that draft, and often, Susan wrote Too BBB! in the margin.  This meant blow-by-blow.  So, for example, I described buying our house, made a character of the real estate agent, looked at houses with him, delineated all their flaws, hilarious stuff, and interesting, great sentences, sure, but too BBB! *

Repetition is the hardest thing to recognize in an advanced draft of either fiction or nonfiction.  I mean, it’s obvious at times: you already described that barn.  But very subtle at other times.  If you’ve got a chapter in which your character is revealed to be avaricious (plumping petit fours into her purse at a funeral, say), you aren’t advancing the story when a few chapters later you show her putting sandwiches in her purse at the gallery opening.  Both are great scenes, but they are doing the same job.  One must go.  Chips of marble.  On the floor.

To know if you are advancing the story, you must know what the story is.   Take an hour and tell yourself the answer.  Then cut what isn’t story.  Or convert even very successful scenes to summary, if those scenes aren’t getting you to the beach.  Thirty very entertaining but superfluous pages on how I got along with a certain neighbor were replaced by a sentence:  “I loved Lulu, and I loved her pets, but still I wasn’t sad when she moved.”

Ernest Hemingway in a letter to William Carlos Williams: “We know the quality of our writing by the quality of the passages we have to cut.”

C. Michael Curtis, my editor at The Atlantic, about my story “Big Bend”:  “It’s not that the stuff I’m cutting isn’t good.  In fact, Bill, it’s very good, and entertaining, too.  It’s that we only have room for 30 pages and your story is at present 45.”  Later, in my collection, also called Big Bend, I restored many of those pages, but not all.

I asked a creative writing class to cut their stories in half, just as an exercise, good stuff.  One kid did it with ease, simply changed the font from 12-point to 8.

We’ll talk in another post about structure, maybe in several posts.  But structure is the top cutting principal.  Your story has a shape, cut the parts that aren’t that shape.

Finally, Richard, there’s another question here, which is whether you should submit a project or even pitch it when you know it’s not done, when you know, for example, that there’s cutting to do.   The short answer is no.   You just don’t get many chances these days.  A 500-page manuscript is oppressive to agent and editor alike, and long books expensive to produce.  If your book works beautifully at 500 pages, or even 2000, that’s no obstacle.  If your reader (no matter how powerful) is engaged and stays engaged from page one, you’re in.  But I don’t think there’s any fear of cutting what an agent or editor might like, because what an agent or editor likes most is a manuscript that’s properly cut.  I’d try for 300 pages.  You don’t need to put it in a drawer for ten years.  You just have to do it, cold, using a variety of tricks.  One of which might be getting a friend to block out the cuts for you.  The other of which is truly horrible, but necessary: telling yourself that the book isn’t finished, which is what I do believe you’re saying here.  Book a room at a cheap motel for a week and do the job over coffee and delivery pizza.

Cutting is hard work, and everyone involved at the publishing end hopes the author is the one who will do it.  I think years ago you could hope for an editor who’d see the David in your marble and suggest all the right moves to reveal him.  And I know there are editors like that still, because I’ve worked with them, revealing chimp after chimp (careers are blocks of marble too—my David is coming).  But these days, the closer to finished your manuscript can be, the better your shot at representation and eventual publication, no matter that there’s blood soaked into the chips and dust on your studio floor.**

* Susan’s other great trick was suggesting footnotes.  So whole passages I was reluctant to cut dropped to the bottom of the page, where it was easy to see they were asides, and later to cut them.  Chips of marble.  Fine marble, but only chips, chips that were obscuring my David, which was the stream.

**Dear reader, this post is way too long.  What would you cut?

  1. Barbara S. Knox writes:

    This comment space didn’t work for me back on 7/6 either, but I’ll use it now as a PS. The Essentials book tells me to be sure my title gets a lot of hits on Google. Mine had 13 million, but it also had several books already out there with the exact same title. Does that matter? My working title for my memoir is Tempered By Fire. If I can keep my title I guess the society of burn victims might have some members who would buy my book. Maybe I can find a network of political junkies since I tell about my run for state treasurer of Pennsylvania. I wonder if the adulterers have a club.

  2. Barbara S. Knox writes:

    I pushed the wrong button and apparently lost my comments. Now I can’t remember what I wrote.
    But I would like to ask if the reams of advice in Ectstutt and Sterry’s very long, 479 page book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, is good advice or bad. As a total novice at getting a book published, I find it (so far–I’m only on page 83) making me feel like giving up.
    As a kid I tried to sell magazines door to door, and have been convinced ever since that If I had to make my living selling stuff, I’d starve. I naively thought that selling the book was the publisher’s job. Seems like I need a blog and a website, need to spend hours a day social networking and know a million people dying to buy my book after I very cleverly convince them that they want it. Only then, and also if, I’m already a somebody in the book world.
    I knew that selling would be my job if I self publish, but I didn’t expect it from a conventional publisher. And then they seem to think i should have and agent and publisher, too. I feel like the only thing I have going for me is a great consultant-editor, Bill Roorbach, who says very nice things about my book (which by the way, according to Essentials, I shouldn’t have written before reading their book.

  3. Richard Gilbert writes:

    P.S.: A great example of what a great screenwriter can do is Horton Foote’s compression into one year of To Kill a Mockingbird, which covers three years and very slowly gets to the trial.

    The novel does drag to me–but then I always compare it to that perfect movie–and I read it more successfully as memoir, which it basically is except for that key thread, the trial and aftermath attack on Jem and Scout.

    Then when the film was edited, Gregory Peck got the children cut back, losing a whole thread about their dealings with the mean neighbor lady, a great thread that was ancillary—much as I’d love to see it, Peck was right. All this background from the recent portrait of Harper Lee, Mockingbird.

  4. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Thanks, Bill! What great ideas here. Can I do it? Don’t know! But I think I do see another cut: minus 15 pages. Glad you mentioned The Smallest Color, which I got today.

  5. John Jack writes:

    I wouldn’t cut until I have a clearly defined insight into what’s missing. In this case, and many blog posts I’ve read and written, and not a few book manuscripts, and published books too. it’s an organizing principle for the sake of thematic unity.

    Theme is pretty clearly defined; the theme is editing. Recurring motifs analogously compare editing to sculpting. The shortcoming of an organizing principle contrasts with the deliberative nature of editing and sculpting. There’s several layers of meaning, in other words. One of which is rambling digressions which don’t in and of themselves fit the central theme, motifs, meaning layers, analogies, method, and central message. However, the digressions are on point from contrasting with the central theme of deliberative editing.

    Plot is an organizing principle, but there are numerable others. Chronological order, priority emphasis then fill in the details, even the scientific model, which is comparatively modern in the science world, but is as old in the fields of rhetoric and argumentum as Western civilization in the form of the progymansmata and declamation rhetoric exercises of the ancient sophists.

    Progymnasmata exercises:
    Thesis or Theme
    Defend / Attack a Law

    Declamation exercises:
    either deliberative in nature (the suasoria),
    or forensic (the controversia)
    both based on substantiating an initial premise or hypothesis and using methods from the progmnasmata.

    See the Silva Rhetoricae for more detail.