Thursday, October 11, 2012

Is Cutting More Important than Adding?

Today I have a guest post from Sechin Tower, author of Mad Science Institute (MSI), a highly unusual yet thoroughly entertaining young adult suspense novel. I met Sechin on Twitter. Once I saw that he was a game developer, I asked for his help on my next proposal, a near future YA techno thriller that involves gaming and he helped me fine tune my game world. I also downloaded his book and found a real gem. Since he’s a teacher, he incorporates science into the plot to make learning fun for young readers. I absolutely fell in love with his YA voice, his characters and his humor. I'm looking forward to his next book. Below is a summary of Mad Science Institute.

Sophia "Soap" Lazarcheck is a girl genius with a knack for making robots-and for making robots explode. After her talents earn her admission into a secretive university institute, she is swiftly drawn into a conspiracy more than a century in the making. Soap is pitted against murderous thugs, experimental weaponry, lizard monsters, and a nefarious doomsday device that can bring civilization to a sudden and very messy end.

Welcome, Sechin!

I had a professor who insisted that the best way to write a two-page paper was to write a 10 page paper, throw it all away, and then hand in pages 11 and 12. When I tell the same thing to my students, they don’t buy it. I can’t blame them: I didn’t really buy it either, not until I started writing novels.

My professor’s point was that not all pages are created equal. Of course it takes more effort to write 10 or 12 bad pages than two bad pages, and maybe even more than two mediocre pages. But good pages require time and effort, as well as research, experimentation, structuring, restructuring, and a nearly endless amount of general fussing. At the very least, good pages require two steps: adding and cutting.

I teach two discrete groups of students and I’ve found that each needs this advice for different reasons. One of my student groups consists of the crème-de-la-crème of our school’s scholars, students who take the most challenging courses, maintain the highest GPAs, and participate in every extracurricular activity that might sparkle on their college applications. My other group consists of at-risk kids in an alternative school program. Many of these students are extremely intelligent, but for a dizzying array of reasons none of them has had much success in school.

The advanced students always want to build up their writing until it overflows. They do the research, they know the issues, they have the facts, and they want to pile it all in without any thought to purpose or readability. The bigger the better: if the assignment calls for two pages, then they assume 10 ought to get a better grade. If they run out of things to say, they resort to inflated words and ponderous sentences. Their writing often becomes a cluttered, colorless hallway that never leads anywhere.

My alternative high-schoolers, on the other hand, bring a great deal of passion about anything they see as relevant to their lives. They are lively, colorful, and outspoken, but even on their favorite topics their writing is terse. For them, it’s about getting to the point. Why wade through the muck of evidence and logic when you can gallop right to the exciting conclusion? Why bother explaining anything if you feel like you already understand it?

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I built a composite of these two groups when I wrote Mad Science Institute. I started by combining all the drive and technical know-how of the advanced students with the vitality and quirkiness of the alternative school kids. I crammed a lot into each character and just as much into the plot and setting, but in the cutting phase I eliminated everything that failed to accelerate the story or develop the characters. It meant cutting some perfectly good ideas, but that was okay: true to the mad science theme, I knew I could stitch them together and give them a new life whenever I was ready. Right then, all that mattered was pruning back and boiling down until the book became balanced and lean.

Being a teacher helped me write a better novel, and writing a novel helped me become a better teacher. I’m not trying to teach my students to become novelists—I wouldn’t push it on them any more than a P.E. teacher would urge all of his students to aim for NFL careers—but what works for crafting a novel applies to essays, letters, and other forms of writing as well. By the end of each year, I’m gratified to see that those students who tended to add too much have learned to accomplish more with fewer words, and the ones who want to start too small learn that they need to build up before they can trim down.

Despite what some students claim, the art of writing is nothing that can be mastered with a mere 16 or 17 years of practice. If I’m any better at it than a student, it isn’t because of what I’ve written but because of what I’ve un-written. Deleting the thousands of pages of rough drafts and practice novels was the only way I could learn what should stay and what just gets in the way, and by the time my students delete that many pages they’ll be better writers than I am.

It seems to me that what you cut is as important as what you add, but maybe that’s just my process. I’d love to hear your opinions on the matter.

How about it, TKZers? Are you more of a cutter or adder?

Sechin's website & Twitter

12 comments:

  1. Howdy Sechin! Welcome to TKZ. Good article on craft. I've found that the cutting part is hardest for me, but most rewarding. For a long time I was stuck on word count and worried that I couldn't make 80k words let alone 100k. When I discovered that with the advent of self-epublishing becoming profitable one didn't have to worry about word count so much, a well written 60k novel can sell as good or better than a 100k word novel, suddenly I felt freedom to focus on the story instead of the length, and things started to clean up.

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  2. Welcome to TKZ, Sechin, and thanks for following me on Twitter.

    I'm both a cutter and an adder. At the end of the first draft of my WIP, I knew I was in trouble. 183 pages--yes, pages--ended up on the cutting-room floor. Then 200+ got added back in. (That's what happens when you don't know what your story is, isn't it?) If you don't mind my paraphrasing the Bible/William Shakespeare and Kenny Rogers in the same sentence, the key is not "neither a cutter nor an adder be," but to "know when to hold 'em, [and] know when to cut 'em..." ;-) In other words, cut what needs to be cut, add what needs to be added.

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  3. Hey, Sechin! Interesting post, and perhaps a philosophy that seeps beyond writing. I work in the tech writing industry. We've found that users can't locate the help they need if we jam the system with every scrap of possible knowledge available about a piece of software. Give the user the stuff they need and leave the rest out.

    And maybe that's true in our lives where society and marketing managers urge us to acquire, acquire, acquire. What would the world look like if we all cut back to the important stuff, to the stuff that will fit in a backpack, a la the George Clooney character in the movie Up in the Air?

    Kathy

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  4. Thanks, all! I'm truly delighted to be here and thanks so much for having me!

    Kathy, I hadn't thought of the broader implications, but you raise some very interesting points! I think we might be dangerously close to following Thoreau's advice to "simplify, simplify, simplify."

    The trick, of course, is knowing what to do without. If anyone finds a sure-fire formula for that, I'd love to know it!

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  5. Great post Sechin and welcome to KZ. Also, Kathy: Great insight from the t/w world. Glad to see that you are writing your stories NOW, instead of waiting until retirement. The search for story is a fascinating one. As someone recently advised, there are two stories: one for the writer and one for the reader.

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  6. Welcome to TKZ, Sechin. I have an edit process where my first pass is to delete, but I come back later with layers of whatever that scene is supposed to be about - love, fear, suspense, etc. But I think it's very important to delete and tighten the narrative.

    I absolute loved Mad Science Institute and your voice in that. Such a polished book too. Well done!

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  7. At Bouchercon, I mentioned your book to a packed house of readers and librarians who came to our panel on the popularity of YA. I noticed many people took down your name. I hope they check you out.

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  8. Thank you so much, Jordan!

    Your comment about adding layers reminded me of another authors' process (can't remember who-- help me out if you know the name!). This famous writer would pin his pages along the bottom of his wall and each time he revised he would move them up higher. He never published until they reached the ceiling, or so the story goes.

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  9. I would be a fire hazard if I did that, Sechin. Ha!

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  10. I just cut 5000 words from my first draft, and man, did it feel good. I tend to overwrite the first draft, and I have a lot of superfluous words that wriggle their way in there (common culprits: now, still, just). Slice and dice!

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  11. When it comes to editing, I'm a spackler, a whacker, and a paragraph mangler. Hmm...sounds like a Steve Miller lyric....

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  12. Ha! Michelle & Kathryn--I love the slice & dice & whacker spackling. Very visual & so true.

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