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This blog is about my books (of course), but it's also about writing in general and the editing process. I love the puzzle of a novel, and I'm happy to share anything I know about editing and revising. Any questions? Leave them in the comment box or send me an email, and I'll address them as quickly as I can.

Monday, April 28, 2014

For First-Time Authors: What to Cut on that First Round of Revisions (Part II: Plot Spurs)

In the previous post, we discussed cutting anecdotes, and incidental scenes and events. This time we’ll be looking at plot spurs, or threads that require you to deviate too far from the main conflict or storyline. Remember that sculpture you’re trying to make from the material in your first draft? Plot spurs are the equivalent of carving extra appendages out of your excess material. They detract from the main story, slow down the pace, throw off the story arc, and distract the reader.

Beware of Plot Spurs

Plot Spurs
A plot spur is a thread that requires spurring off the main conflict and away from the main storyline to explain, justify, or support an unessential element of the story. This includes any threads that need their own backstory or development separate from, and not connected to, the main storyline or conflict.

It’s fairly common for new authors to start threads that demand too much attention. Romances between supporting characters are often a problem because if they’re going to happen they require development. Scenes will need to be created to show the characters together, and the reader needs time to invest in their budding relationship – but at what expense? Sometimes this can be successfully done, but in many cases it causes problems with the pace as it requires interrupting the main storyline.

Every thread should be carefully examined, and if it requires you to create scenes, characters, or material in general just to support or develop it, it may be spurring too far from the main conflict and need to be dropped.

Now don’t get me wrong, building a character does require showing different aspects of his or her life. If you have a character who gets accidentally involved in an FBI investigation, for instance, there has to be more to your character than her interaction with the agents and suspects as the case builds. She’ll need to have some outside source of conflict – a neurotic mother, a land lord who is trying to evict her from her apartment, etc. – or both the character and the plotline will be too one-dimensional. The trick is in keeping those other threads concentrated around the necessary plot elements, and making sure you’re not winging off into the wild blue yonder and dragging your reader along with you.

Let’s take the neurotic mother. There is a lot of potential for spurring with a situation like this. There are all sorts of problems and antics the mother may get herself caught up in that can affect the main character, but that’s all the more reason for proceeding with caution. For instance, if the mother gets fed up with her nosy neighbor and decides on a whim to marry the much-younger, hot garbage man and move to Vegas, that’s fine. She may even dump her loud, yapping, skin-diseased poodle on your heroine because her new husband hates pets. All of this provides great material for showing your character under stress, gives her new of issues to deal with, and highlights her struggle with her mother.

However, if we meet Gertrude the nosy neighbor and watch Hank the garbage man propose to the mother, you’ve spurred too far from your storyline. You may need to write those scenes in order to get a good handle on the crazy mother’s character, but the reader definitely doesn't need that much information. Why not? Because the mother’s relationships with these people have nothing to do with your main character outside of the decisions the mother makes regarding them.

In other words, in terms of your character it doesn’t matter who Hank is, he only factors in because the mother is packing up and moving to Vegas because of him, and that she found a hot young guy to marry while the heroine remains single. We don’t need to see the cause, just the effect. A quick phone call or visit from the mother where she announces her news will adequately orient the reader to all the necessary info. Elaborating further than that pulls the attention too far from what’s happening (and going to happen next) to your main character, which stretches out your story arc and slows down your pace.

Plot spurs can be small and easily overlooked or big and cumbersome, but a manuscript is always better without them. Like anecdotes and incidental scenes, threads that spur off the main story line are fairly easy to isolate, and are therefore good elements for any author to focus on when it comes time to make that first round of cuts. You may feel they add interest, humor, or depth, but chances are they are also flat-lining your story arc and slowing down your pace. Once you identify a plot spur, be tough with yourself and cut it out of your book.

The good news is that like anecdotes, you can often find a way to use discarded threads as fan-features on your website. While these threads don’t always translate well into ‘deleted scenes’, some of them – like the mother’s scenes with Gertrude and Hank – can make great short stories that can be included on your blog or website. This gives you a chance to fully develop and create something of value from your deleted plot spurs, and I think we all know how fun it is to ‘finish’ reading a book and then discover there’s more to the story. But whether you find a way to salvage and use the superfluous material from your first draft or not, it still needs to be cut if you want your manuscript to become the best finished product possible.

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