The first consideration is to accept that there is excessive material in your manuscript. They say there is an exception to every rule, but I have yet to meet the exception to this one. Yes, there was a purpose for each and every word, but while all that information might have been important for the author, it isn’t all important for the reader.
Think of it this way: a novel is like a sculpture. It’s a finely honed piece of art that has to be carved from an existing chunk of material, and that first draft is the chunk of material you’ll be carving from. As the author there are things you need to put into that original chunk – backstory, conversations, minor incidents, general information and exposition, anecdotes, etc. – to help you understand the story you’re telling. A lot of that, however, can be condensed, woven through, summarized, or cut altogether, because in its entirety it’s too much. Too clunky, too heavy, and too expansive to create that perfect sculpture you’re visualizing in your mind.
On subsequent novels these things become easier to differentiate, but on that first attempt it can be very difficult to decipher the essential from the excess. Every author knows scenes that fail to move the story forward should be cut, but the first-time author is often left asking what that actually means. I remember asking that question myself regarding certain scenes that I felt offered necessary information or depth to my story, but that my editor felt were excessive and unnecessary. In the end she was right at least 90% of the time. Almost all of those scenes came out of the book, and instead I found ways to preserve the ideas or information that were actually critical to my story.
Some cuts are difficult to determine without outside critique, but other elements are fairly easy to isolate, analyze, and cut with confidence. The two that we’ll be looking at in this post are Anecdotes, and Incidental Scenes/Events.
For the purposes of this discussion an ‘anecdote’ is a retelling or narrative of an interesting or amusing incident, often in the form of an aside or backstory.
These can be funny, poignant, amusing, telling, and often reveal important information about the main character. In pure anecdotal form, however, they are also almost always expendable.
The argument can be made that books revolve around anecdotes, but this is only true when the author uses the interesting and/or amusing incidents as main events in their plot. When used only to demonstrate ‘something that happened’ outside the main storyline, they often fail to contribute anything critical to the plot.
Sometimes anecdotes are included as flashbacks, and sometimes a character actually tells another character what happened. Either way, if you have a scene where your mc ‘remembers when’ and then recounts the entire incident, it should probably go. If the info is legitimately important, find a different way to incorporate it – summarize, put the critical details in dialogue, have another character question your mc about it – or see if you can do without it after all.
· Incidental Scenes and Events
A scene or event is considered incidental if it serves only to further define or clarify, amuse the reader, or support a theme of the book.
In my first draft of Laryn Rising, there was scene where Laryn and her sisters went to the cafeteria kitchen for their first day of work. They arrived knowing nothing about ‘real food’, and during the scene they smelled their first onion, tasted their first cookie, and interacted with Wanda, the very large woman in charge of the kitchen who also happens to be one of my favorite characters. I loved this scene. It was interesting and enlightening, and it showcased the assimilation process of Laryn and her sisters, which is one of the main themes of the book. Unfortunately, it also slowed down the pace because nothing important happened here. There was nothing new for the reader to learn, it simply highlighted an interesting aspect of the story. There was no conflict, and the scene did not require a meaningful reaction or decision from any of my characters. It had to go.
While anecdotes and incidental scenes are some of the easiest elements to identify, isolate, and cut, they also tend to be some of the most difficult to let go. As stated earlier, we like these scenes. Often times, we learned the most about our characters by delving into their pasts or watching what they would do in normal, everyday situations. But don’t let this fool you into thinking that your readers need to see them as well. Instead, trust that the depth of characterization that happened as you developed these scenes will carry through every other aspect of your character, and let them go. I promise, it really will improve your book. Besides, there’s no need for great scenes to be wasted. We all love the ‘deleted scenes’ from our favorite movies, and books are no different, so save yours and post them on your book blog. They’ll make a great fan feature, and every reader who fell in love with your characters will be thrilled to discover them.
(Click here for What to Cut Part II: Plot Spurs)
(Click here for What to Cut Part II: Plot Spurs)