Removing What’s Not Story

I’ve just cut fifty pages from a polished, 400-page draft—that’s one-eighth of what I’d considered a completed book.  What was in those pages?  A few scenes that slowed down the plot, a lot of unnecessary dialogue, whole paragraphs of exposition, and hundreds of extraneous words extracted from too-long sentences.  Everything I cut was not my story. As it’s very possible there are remnants of not-story remaining, I still have some final combing to do.  And I’ve no doubt my agent and eventual editor will cut even more.

I began working on this novel in 2005, and I am humbled by how much of the volume of what I’ve written has not been my story.  Perhaps other writers are more efficient and economical; perhaps others have the capacity to anticipate the essence of an emergent story, or focus their work during the initial drafting, or otherwise find shortcuts that don’t shortchange the quality of their writing.  This is my fourth book, and I’ve yet to discover an easier method.  I must generate years of notes and scenes and reflections, and then revise “until kingdom come” as my mother says.  In my final revisions, I mostly cut.  I’m a spring gardener after the bushes have bloomed—hack that lilac down to the ground; give that spirea a deep shave.  The story’s life-blood is trustworthy.  If I’m ruthless now, it will bloom all the more when its read.

The hardest part of writing a story—the part that takes the longest—is figuring out what the story is about.  How can I say this so beginning writers don’t think I’m crazy?  Stories are mysterious ecosystems, populated by complex, interconnected people and fueled by subterranean forces.  This is as true for memoir as it is for fiction.  We may write to discover what happens next, but we rewrite to discover a story’s soul.  Souls are shy; they flee the spotlight; they are glimpsed best from the periphery of our vision.  Souls emerge only gradually.  A story’s soul shows itself only once the author has demonstrated faithfulness, commitment, and a deep capacity for listening.  You know your story’s soul is shining through when pages and pages of your work seem superfluous, and you find yourself willing to slough them off for the sake of that light.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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