Writers know that in order to produce a good story, you’ve got to edit your work and “cut the fat” to tighten things up. Sometimes this means removing a dull scene that does nothing to move the story along. Other times it means completely removing a character who has just been hanging around in the wings with their hands shoved in their jean’s pockets, waiting for you to figure out what to do with them.
This somewhat godly act of reaching into a story to commit major or minor changes can be heartbreaking (think, toiling over a chapter for days, then deciding in the final edit that it does nothing for the book and ultimately removing it) or it can be a relief to remove something that’s felt like a roadblock to progress in your story.
For me, “cutting the fat” meant completely dropping almost everything I had put into a recent work in progress. After 3 months of diligent writing, I’d amassed about 100k words. Then one day I sat down in front of the manuscript and realized that it wasn’t going in the direction that I wanted. Not only that, but my main character had lost her backbone. She was just drifting along with the ebbs and flows of the story, not really doing much.
I knew I had to cut the fat, but this time the fat was an entire book when I was only one chapter away from finishing the first draft. I immediately went to my online writing community (okay, I wouldn’t exactly call it “my” community since I really only dip into it when there’s an interesting article or I feel like I can lend my two cents for another writer’s struggles) and asked what I should do.
If I’m being honest, I wasn’t asking for advice. I was asking for permission to finish the work and say that it was fine the way it was. But it wasn’t. And, luckily, my community of writers (Writer Unboxed in case you’re wondering), weren’t willing to let me off the hook quite so easily. It was suggested that I keep the old manuscript, but only in case there were bits of material I could use in the new manuscript. I was to treat the old draft like a junkyard, coming back to it only to pick and pull apart scrap pieces that could be reused in the new manuscript.
I ended up using about 5% of the old manuscript. The other 95% of the words I’d toiled over for 3 months still sit in the junkyard, but it’s unlikely that I’ll ever use them.
They were the fat. They had to be cut.
Though it was a very difficult thing to give up on that much work, it was also the right thing to do. I now have a finished draft that I’m much happier with. I’ll still have to go back in and cut more fat from it, but these will be meager trimmings rather than entire chapters.
Writing is hard. I get that now. But it’s not the act of typing out words onto a blank screen that makes it so. It’s that second stage of cutting the fat that gets a writer twisted in knots.