Adding by Subtraction

I recently led a manuscript review for a second draft of a book-length memoir.  As often happens at this stage, the class discussed what the book was about at its core, helping the author articulate its purpose and drive, and then named the thematic threads that unify the many disparate stories.  Some of these themes were surprising to the author, most confirmed her intentions or instincts, and all needed development.  The class wanted more:  more reflection, more anecdotes that supported her primary exploration, more links between the narrative and the various questions the narrative raised.  Her manuscript was already a good 250+ pages, so I wasn’t surprised when she cornered me afterward and asked, “How can I possibly make all these changes without the book getting ridiculously long?”

I share her question because every manuscript goes through this stage.  The author has plenty of material.  The outer stories are complete and even polished.  Individual chapters feel done.  And yet the author discovers a need for greater unity and deeper purpose across the whole manuscript.  The chapters may stand alone well, but they’re not yet working together.  The surface of the story unfolds nicely across the book, but the inner ideas, questions, or explorations are ragged and shallow.  A whole new revision is necessary, one that requires the author to think in book-length thoughts and to uncover what I call the soul of the book.

How exactly do we do this?  The obvious and sometimes frustrating answer is to write more.  Once we’ve identified our primary themes, we often need to journal about them, creating space for more insights, more memories, and more supportive anecdotes to arise.  We need to journal away from the constraints of our draft to give us freedom to discover new material, and we need to journal within the context of crucial moments of our story as a way of excavating what lies beneath.  Then we can choose what new material will enhance the unifying themes, and insert it.

As I told my student, adding is only one means of developing themes.  I recommend it first, because by writing more we grow clearer in our understanding of what, exactly, our book is about.  Once we have a clear vision, however, most of the work of revising requires reframing and cutting.

By reframing, I mean looking at your old material through new lenses.  Usually the orientation of individual pieces of a manuscript shifts once those pieces are placed in the whole.  For example, I originally wrote the chapter of my memoir about biking across Wales thinking my whole book would be about biking.  My early draft emphasized externals like the strain on my body, the people I met, and my growing sense of independence.  Only later did I discover that the heartbeat of my book was in the connection between sexuality and spirituality.  I had to look at my biking stories through this lens, eliminating anecdotes that didn’t serve this heartbeat and polishing those anecdotes that did until they clearly illustrated how my physical being and spiritual being came alive over those months of solitude.  This looked like rewriting from scratch, although I was working with a fairly well-developed draft.

Oddly enough, we do our best work of deepening and strengthening themes across a book by eliminating what doesn’t serve those themes.  Here again is that old spiritual practice of letting go.  Once we’ve found the soul of our book, we must serve it by casting off all that steers us and our readers in the wrong direction.  This is simple living, literary-style—challenging, sometimes painful, but ultimately gratifying because we land on what’s most important.  Like Michelangelo and his block of marble, we eliminate everything that’s not angel and we’re left with the angel.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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