Cutting

"Writing is rewriting" is the old writing rule. To that we need to add, "Rewriting is cutting." Cutting is one of your most important skills. Often, cutting alone will reveal what needs to be done. So, what is cutting? What do you do when you cut? And what exactly do you cut? What you do is go through your story and cut every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph you can possibly do without. Now, I'm not talking about destroying it for all time. You're just marking it to see what you can do without if you have to, but saving it in case you need to put it back.

After you've cut paragraphs, then go on and cut every character and every scene you could do without. Then, cut time. Condense it. If your story takes two years, try to make it happen in two months, two weeks, or two days. Cutting is the best skill you can develop, because cutting is not just cutting. In order to cut, you have to (consciously or unconsciously) address every story issue there is. When you cut, you're deciding what belongs and what doesn't. Somewhere in you, you have a sense of what fits and what doesn't, what is relevant, what works. You don't have to know exactly what that is or why something doesn't fit, so long as you feel it, especially early on. The more craft you master, the more you'll know why something does or doesn't belong.

When you cut in this manner, what you end up with is what works for you. The material you relate to will stand out from the rest. And there will be gaps, gaps that will make it easier to see where you need to fill in. As when you focus a lens, sharpening the image, what's important to you pops out.

EXERCISE: TO CUT OR NOT TO CUT

OK, it's time to get active—to practice some cutting. Here's a quote from the first draft of one of the most famous writers of all time. See if you recognize it.

To be painfully, torturously alive or not to be painfully, torturously, agonizingly alive-that my fretful friend, is the foul, wrenching, damnable question to be answered, here and now, for all God's good eternity.

Recognize it? Shakespeare. But doctored Shakespeare. It's Shakespeare that I've fixed up so you can practice cutting. The original Shakespeare is there, the right words in the right order. All you have to do is to cut until you pare it down and uncover the original. Just get rid of everything you can do without. Here's the full exercise:

The quality of true mercy is not strained, nay not a drop, not a wit. Neither is it forced or pressured or driven. For it droppeth freely and softly as the gentle rain from Heaven above to settle tenderly upon the earth, this thirsty place beneath.

How sharper and more piercing than a festered serpent's venomed tooth it is for a blameless, blemishless, doting parent to have a spiteful, spitful, thankless child next to thy own most tenderest of breasts.

To be painfully, torturously alive or not to be painfully, torturously, agonizingly alive-that, my fretful friend, is the foul, wrenching, damnable question to be answered, here and now, for all God's good eternity. Whether 'tis far far nobler for one, in the mind, to suffer unrelentingly the lashing slings and piercing arrows of this fickle, fiendish outrageous fortune, or take up strong, noble arms against a vicious sea of outrageous troubles. ... To die, totally, completely, finally, to sleep the blessed snooze of the babe, to sleep-perchance to dream the wretched dream. Aye ye, frisky friend, there's the wrenching rub, the harshest, unkindest rub of all, the rub that soothes not, but beats and rends and tears asunder.

When you're done, check your version against the original Shakespeare on the next page.

The quality of mercy is not strained,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath.

How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is To have a thankless child!

To be, or not to be-that is the question.

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

. . . To die, to sleep. To sleep-per chance to dream.

Aye, there's the rub.

In chapter 5, on self-editing, I talked about doing the most yourself before seeking feedback from someone else. Again, it's important for your own development that you practice all the techniques in this chapter before you seek outside help. Get the most out of yourself before you go to someone else. That means you have to get through these techniques in a deliberate way and apply each one to your writing. If you do, you will solve your problems your way, the best way, and avoid the distraction and confusion that can result from seeking help too soon.

It's time to do some writing. I'm going to give you the same kind of exercises I did last time. If you want to continue what you did last time and go forward with it, then ignore these. They're always here for you to use.

EXERCISES

You now have two full stories to choose from. Here are the next parts of those:

FIRST FULL STORY, PART FIVE:

This is the infidelity story. Confrontation/scene. New things need to be hashed out. The betrayed character wants more answers and something more from the lover (realistic and unrealistic), wants to punish, etc. The scene follows the same form as all scenes: want, obstacle, action (worse at the end, finish in the mind of the character).

SECOND FULL STORY, PART TWO:

This is the late date story. The late partner appears. She makes a series of weak excuses about being late, which the other character deflects. After being nice in order to set her up, he launches his plan and tells her he's had enough and feels it would be best if they split up. To his shock, she agrees, saying that it's never going to work out, so they might as well cut their losses.

Here are two full-scene exercises:

Wedding day doubts. In the bedroom or waiting room with the bride or the groom, who is feeling uneasy and worried, full of doubts.

Different people come in to help out (friends, father, mother, brother, sister, minister). The character asks each about their feelings on their wedding day, trying to get some help without coming right out and saying what the problem is. The advice given is off the mark, wrong, self-serving, shocking, maybe a bit helpful. This could be a complete story if the character struggles enough and makes up his or her mind to go ahead or back out at the end.

Dying and going to hell and meeting the devil.

Here are some three-word combinations:

Dragon, fastidious, lawyer. Quarterback, dandelion, pirouette. Butler, truculent, buffoon.

Method HOW TO. HOW NOT TO.

Method is the most wide-open part of this. No one can tell you how to approach your story. But they often do. Many writers think that their way is the only way. They find a way that solves their problems and think that it'll work for everyone. They espouse principles like:

• You must plan it out first. If you don't know the end, you won't know how to begin.

• Knowing the ending first takes all the fun and surprise out of writing.

• Don't go forward until you've gotten the beginning down.

• Write a first draft, straight through to the end, then come back and work on the beginning. (Even if you plan it, the ending is never what you expect. Changing the ending requires changing the beginning.)

• Never talk about your story, or you'll lose the energy and desire to write it.

• You must have a premise. Your story must fulfill that premise, or it will never be successful.

• Do all your research first.

• Write first, find out what you know and what you don't, then research.

• Know your characters before you start writing. Write full character biographies for your characters first.

Lots of advice and lots of contradiction. That's because what's right for one writer is wrong for another. So what's true? All of the above, depending on you and the story you're writing at the moment.

Planning: For some writers planning everything out first works great. It gives them a sense of direction and confidence that gets them writing. For others, who like the adventure, surprise, and discovery they get from not planning, planning is cramping, tiring, incapacitating. But it doesn't have to be all or none. Some stories lend themselves to planning, while others don't. Which is which is a matter of what feels right to you at the time. Even if you're not a planner, don't rule it out. There might be times when planning will work for you. And if you are a planner, don't rule out jumping in with no plan. You may plan parts of a story and not others. The only way to tell what's right for you or a particular story is to try it both ways. Respect your impulses and urges. Some mystery writers say they need to know the end before they begin so that they can move the story to it. Elmore Leonard says that he doesn't know or want to know the ending. That's what he writes to find out—how it's going to end. If he knew the ending, he wouldn't bother. E. L. Doctorow says that, for him, writing a novel is like driving along a pitch-dark highway with only the center line visible a short distance ahead in his headlights. He only knows what he can see at the moment and has no idea where the road will take him. Ed McBain says he starts with a corpse or someone who is going to become a corpse. From then on he has to go on the same clues that the cops do. Probably, the nonplanners or plan-little writers are in a majority. No matter how much you plan, there's going to be plenty of surprises and discoveries. Neither method is better than the other. What's better is what works for you.

Often, if you believe something works, it will work, especially if it feels right. If it gives you a sense of confidence and keeps you writing, it's right.

Working the Beginning: Some writers (beginning writers especially) feel that getting the beginning right will make the rest easier. Maybe. It depends. It doesn't really solve any of the later problems unless you feel it does. If you feel strongly about it, if you believe in it, do it. But be careful that you don't hang yourself up on some preconceived idea about how it's supposed to work. There is no one right way. Often, you figure out the beginning by going forward and writing the middle or even the end. Again, what works for you is what's right. If you feel like doing it a certain way, try it. If it doesn't work, try something else, or try the opposite.

Write the First Draft Down to the End: This is good advice for writers who tend to get bogged down rewriting and rewriting. That's a danger for all of us, so it's probably a good idea to keep moving. If it works. The flip side is that while you're hot, you don't want to skim over things so fast that you don't get to the good stuff you've got in you for a particular part.

Never Talk About Your Story: Erskine Caldwell would never talk about what he was writing or was going to write. He said that if he did, once he told it, it was over—he would never write it. Many writers, however, get a lot out of discussing their ideas. It helps them formulate new ideas and sparks their interest even more.

You Must Write from a Premise: Some writers feel that knowing what their story is expressing in terms of its meaning, the point they're making, determines everything they do and makes everything more manageable. George Bernard Shaw was one of the great premise writers (Pygmalion, Major Barbara). He always had a didactic point to make and even had his characters discuss the meaning of his story in the middle of the play.

Some writers say that you cannot write a successful or coherent story without knowing your premise. So what is a premise? It's a statement that tells you what the story is about. "Greed leads to destruction," is a premise. It's the point that your story (your characters' actions) proves.

One premise advocate says that even the writers who claim they write without a premise do fulfill a premise in their stories; therefore, they have an "unconscious" premise that's guiding their story. Well, if it's unconscious, then we don't need to concern ourselves with it.

However, this attitude that nothing works without a clear premise is based on a lack of understanding of what a full (want, obstacle, action, resolution) story does. You cannot tell a full story without fulfilling a premise. Once you set two strongly opposing forces against each other, your story will be making a statement about the nature of those forces and what happens when they collide. It will have meaning on that level whether you are aware of it or not. This kind of analysis belongs more to the realm of literature classes (meaning, theme, etc.) than to the realm of the writer. Premise is an irrelevant concern—unless it helps you write. It may be your thing, so it's worth a try. If it's not for you, forget it. Tell a full story (want, obstacle, action, resolution) and the rest takes care of itself.

Research First, Research Last: Lots of writers waste loads of time researching because they're reluctant to start writing. The longer they research, the longer they put off writing. They're looking for something in the research that will spark them to sit down and start writing. OK, if it works. But after a certain amount of time, you have to fish or cut bait. If your research is getting you revved up to start writing and as soon as you've done enough, you get rolling, OK. You may even be doing both (writing and researching) at the same time.

But often you think you need to know a lot more than you do. You may also be trying to make up for a lack of confidence by researching. What you know as a private citizen about the workings of the government, the police, big business, medicine, the stock market will be enough for you to start writing or even to finish your story. Remember, most of your readers aren't going to be experts. You know a lot about how the world works from the nightly news, books, movies, and your own life experience. One crime writer says he never researches first. He writes it the way it makes sense and how he imagines it would work, and then, once he's finished, he checks things out with the cops. He says he's always very close and has to change very little.

Character Histories and Biographies: Some writers feel you have to know all about your characters' backgrounds and lives outside the story (material that will never appear in the story) in order to create a convincing character and a believable story. They tell the rest of us that we need to write lengthy biographies about the character's education, siblings, parents, musical taste, what's in the character's clothes closet, medicine cabinet, refrigerator, etc.

If this helps you, OK. The problem is: 1. it's a lot of work, and 2. it doesn't solve any of the story problems you're going to face once you get down to it. The most revealing thing about a character is his actions, how he behaves when he's beset with a threatening problem. In a full story, your character emerges and develops automatically, because he must act in a meaningful, revealing way. He has no choice. Developing your character takes place automatically. Creating a story and developing character are not separate issues.

Tennessee Williams didn't think about where Stanley Kowalski went to school or how far he got or what kind of music he liked. Yet as soon as Stanley came on the scene and started behaving like Stanley, we knew. We knew he didn't listen to Mozart or love rare antique figurines. Character biographies are extra work, so do them only if they give you a feel for your characters that makes writing your story easier. If the idea appeals to you, that's enough reason to try it.

Two at a Time—or More: Some writers jump back and forth between two stories or even among three or more. If they're hot on one story, they stick with it until they cool off, then they jump to another one that attracts them.

It's always good to follow your urges. If you're struggling with chapter 2 and feeling, "I can't wait to get to the big confrontation scene in chapter five," go to chapter 5, and do it now. But be careful that you're not just trying to avoid facing a story problem. Even that's OK, since letting it alone for a while and coming back give you more perspective and also allow your subconscious to solve the problem for you. So, running away from trouble isn't necessarily bad if you go work elsewhere and then come back and deal with it later. "Gently but always," is the old writing rule.

Not Finishing: You can start many short pieces and not finish anything for quite a while before you have to worry. That happens a lot at the beginning. The important thing is to figure out as much as you can about the problem in story terms (want, obstacle, action, resolution, emotion, showing) before you leave one piece and go to another. Sooner or later, you will need to force your hand (gently) and start steering yourself toward writing a full story, taking each piece farther toward completion than the previous one, even if it's only by one paragraph.

This can be a problem especially for people who are in the habit of journaling (writing to themselves about whatever's in their minds or what's going on in their lives each day). Journaling can be an end in itself, a way of finding yourself each day. You will need to start shaping your journaling into story form, finding, emphasizing, or inventing the story elements (want, obstacle, action) in your journaling material. Again: little by little, until you get there.

We can say a lot about what a story is and how it works and what it has to fulfill in the end. But, how you do it, your personal creative process, is wide-open. It's up to you. If it works, if you're able to sit down and start writing when you want or need to, then that's right for you. Even if you have a way that works well, be open. Try different things, and always respect your emotions and urges.

EXERCISES

The infidelity ("Larry scene") thoughts. In chapter 6, you put the thoughts of the husband in. Now, play the part of the wife, and put her thoughts in. Give us her worries, fears, and hopes at every possible opportunity. Whenever she can possibly have a thought, put it in. Go overboard. You can cut back later.

FIRST FULL STORY, PART SIX:

The infidelity story. Depending on what the character wants and what needs to be hashed out, you will have one or more further confrontation scenes. A lot depends on how much trouble the character (and you, the author) dig up to deal with in the confrontation scenes. Eventually, you'll get to a final scene, in which a final resolution is reached. The character has to decide to stay or to split, to threaten, kill, commit suicide, fleece, blackmail-anything you want. Again, we end in the mind of the character at the end.

SECOND FULL STORY, PART THREE:

The late date story. In the last part, she agreed that breaking up was a good idea. Now, he's stunned and trying to recover, to take it back, to get her to reconsider, to salvage the relationship. But it's her turn to point out what's wrong with him, and she does a thorough and, to him, shocking job. (What she comes up with may well be new to you, the author. That means that you will need to work in some clues in the earlier parts when you rewrite so it's believable and so you're not springing something on the reader out of the blue.) He does what he can to get her to reconsider and stay, but she walks out.

Full scenes:

Getting mugged.

A criminal committing a crime-a bank robbery, a swindle, a murder. Do it from his or her point of view. Think of it as the portrait of a criminal. Discovering your lover is a crook. Here are some three-word combinations:

Pizza, shark, waterbed. Dragon, rickshaw, bifocals. Anteater, income tax, cologne.

Under the Sun UNIQUENESS. UNIVERSAL PLOTS.

"There's nothing new under the sun. Everything's been done before. All we do is tell the same story over and over." Ever heard this? If it's true, why bother? The reason to bother, even though it has all been done before, is that it's never been done your way. You won't be telling someone else's story, because you can only tell your own—your version of the way the world works. Your point of view is fresh and unique. It's your creative DNA. It comes from you and your experience. No one else has that to work from but you.

I don't mean you should write autobiographically. It's fine if you do, but no matter how or what you write, it's you. Your science fiction is you. Your fairy tale is you. Your superhero, private eye, four-headed monster are you. Uniqueness, difference, is your birthright. No two people are identical. But that doesn't mean you feel different. And you don't have to. Unless something about you or your behavior draws attention or rubs people the wrong way, you probably feel overall that you're a lot like everybody else.

If you don't feel different or unique, how do you make your writing original and fresh? You do that by being specific, getting it down exactly as you see it, by showing. Showing is the basic writing technique we went over a number of times. Here, as always, the answer to this conceptual problem (difference, originality, freshness) is a concrete technical/craft solution. If you get it down as you see it, as you imagine it, it will be different, fresh, one of a kind, unlike anyone else's.

Along the same lines, you may have heard that there are only so many plots in the world. If so, how many? Three, 6, 12, 20? Well, there's a book that's been around for a long time that's called The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. The author claims that he's covered all the basic plots with 36. Another book, called Twenty Master Plots, presents 20, but doesn't claim that's all there are. Aristotle, who's considered to be the grandfather of everything (if you say, "Aristotle says," no one's going to argue with you), claimed there were 6. Here are Aristotle's: 1. Man against man. 2. Man against society. 3. Man against the gods. 4. Man against himself. 5. Man against nature. 6. Man against machine.

So, we have 36, 20, or 6, depending on whom you believe. Having gotten this far in the course, what do you imagine I'm going to say? Here's a clue. When Einstein died, he was working on the unified field theory. He was searching for the one principle that explained how everything in the universe worked. Einstein didn't find it. But I'm happy to tell you that I've found the unified field theory of fiction. The single, universal plot. It's the single plot they're all talking about, whether they give you 36 or 20 or 6.

The universal plot is a character's struggle to overcome a threatening problem—within himself, without, or both. Every one of Aristotle's plots follows this form. He changes the subject, the problem, what the character is struggling against, but not the plot itself. Whether the character is struggling against a man, society, the gods, himself, nature, or machine doesn't alter the plot in any way. It's still someone against someone or something—always. Life is a series of struggles. We're born. We have to learn to walk, talk, separate from our mother, get along with others, develop a sexual identity, get an education, find a mate and an occupation, rear a family, manage old age, die. It's want, obstacle, action, resolution over and over and over—one struggle after another. It's the human condition, the universal plot. The only one. That's all you need. That's plenty.

In using this plot (these elements), you need to be aware that your story and your characters do not live in the concepts of want, obstacle, action, etc. In putting together your story, you're working with your character, his actions, his words, his emotions. The word want, for example, may not be in your head at all. You'll be in a different region of your mind. You will have a character acting, talking, thinking, feeling, struggling on the page and in your imagination.

Sooner or later, depending on how you work, you need to go back and ask, "Who wants what?" Doing that requires a shift from the warm, real, living experience on the page to a colder, more analytical and objective frame of mind. That, in itself, can be irritating. Plus, this is new to you, so you may not be sure exactly what want is. You may remember there is false want as well as dramatic want. One works, and one doesn't, but you may not be sure of the difference. So, you may have to go back and review. All of this pulls you away from your story and may feel so irritating or intimidating that you won't bother.

Uncomfortable as it may be, you must do it. Step-by-step, check every scene and your overall story for want, obstacle, action, resolution, and emotion. At first, you won't be sure. It'll be hard to tell if you have dramatic want or not, but with practice it gets easier and easier, and eventually you will do it automatically without having to make a special effort. Whatever you do, don't blame yourself or start thinking that you don't have what it takes, just because it's tricky. Just remember this is the learning cycle. The learning cycle is: You start at unconscious ineptitude. You don't know what you don't know. Then as you develop, you progress to conscious ineptitude. You know what you don't know—what you need to work on. Next is conscious mastery. You can do it, but you have to pay a lot of attention and it's not natural. Last is unconscious mastery. It happens in you as reflex and doesn't require conscious thought or control.

A good way to practice is to analyze someone else's story for these elements. A good novel to do this on is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolfe and Gone With the Wind are also excellent for this purpose. Some short stories that are excellent for this are "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" by Ernest Hemingway, and "The Outstation" and "Macintosh," both by Somerset Maugham. The stories of Flannery O'Connor are also excellent. Go over a few pages a day doing this if you have time. Eventually you'll close the gap between seeing these elements in other people's work and seeing them in your own.

The thing to remember is that, for a while and off and on even after you've mastered it, it's going to feel uncomfortable or irritating to switch from the creative flow of your mind into the analytical and conceptual frame of mind. That's fine. It's no reflection on you. Don't let it sidetrack you. Go there, and do it. If you master these few elements, if you can put a story together in this way, no matter what other mistakes you make, you will succeed.

Speaking of doing it, it's time to put something on the page again. If you have something you want to go back to from previous writing, do that. If you're doing the full-story exercise, you'll be doing the next part.

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