Blogger: Michelle Ule
Sitting in for Wendy today.
Do you have trouble pruning words from your manuscript?
Since childhood, I’ve cherished the scene in Frances Hodgson’s The Secret Garden, where the three children stand outside the door in the wall they’ve uncovered. The rusty key goes into the ancient lock and they push into an overgrown garden, full of surprises, birds, animals and thick with promise.
Life is good–I had a similar experience as an adult, though we could see the thick, thatchy overgrown orchard through the deer fencing.
In our case, the whole family stood outside the gate as my husband shoved it open. Armed with pruners, lopers, saws, gloves, and masks, we pushed in with curiosity. What types of trees grew in that orchard seven years neglected?
I’m remembering it all today because I have another garden that needs pruning: the recently completed rough draft of my current project.
Ringing in my ears are the valiant words of a teaching assistant from my freshman composition class at UCLA: “Cut out the dead wood!”
I didn’t understand her meaning until I faced an overgrown orchard.
Suddenly pruning made sense.
I spent thirty hours in that orchard, armed with saws and pruners. I stood back and considered each tree in turn. What wood was healthy? What boughs and limbs needed to go?
The more I cut away, the clearer it became.
Some trees gave up their dead wood easily, relieved to have it lopped off. Others trees were not so sure and the saw bit and plowed hard to cut limbs that pulled the tree down, distracted from the tree’s beauty, or simply made it hard to reach healthy fruit.
Some trees looked spindly and denuded when I finished.
Others looked relieved.
The next year, we got a bumper fruit crop.
I’m reading through my manuscript now, making notes, changing things, recognizing angles I put in unawares, and relentlessly cutting out all the dead writing–words that clutter the read, rather than make it refreshing.
No saws this time, unless I have to remove an entire scene. Right now I’m nipping and tucking, trying to get a sense of the overall story and how the plot interacts.
On a tree, you have to choose between overlapping limbs. Which one is the healthiest? Which will let in the most light?
It’s the same with a manuscript: this line may be terrific but if it rubs against another, or undercuts a third. It’s my task to figure out the strongest, healthiest line–the one that moves my story forward in the best way.
I was 2500 words over my target of 50,000, so obviously some severe pruning, even lopping, needed to be done. I found several paragraphs that went nowhere, or duplicated other scenes.
The saw came out, er, the delete key, and the word count fell.
As in my garden, I began slowly, thinking as I went. I did a “find” search of words I overuse: really, so, some, very, that. I looked at each sentence containing those words and considered how to strengthen the sentence, or maybe pull it out all together. Just those words and other minor alterations, reduced the word count by 1700 words.
I can now see the manuscript as a whole, better, and I’m ready to pull out, reorganize and cut more.
It feels good.
In The Secret Garden, the children grew stronger and healthier the more time they spent in the garden. And while pruning and clearing, they stumbled upon the joy of small things: bulbs pushing up through ancient soil, birds pulling worms and trilling with song.
As I cull through my manuscript, I find similar things: turns of phrase I’d forgotten, multiple layers of meaning I hadn’t realized I wrote.
It’s all joy.
Especially now that I’ve thinned enough to see it in fullness. Sweet.
How much word pruning do you do when rereading your manuscript?
And how do you feel when you’re done?
Pruning a manuscript–just like in The Secret Garden Click to Tweet
Pruning words to find the heart of the message. Click to Tweet