Sunday, March 20, 2011

Cutting away (Lauren Bjorkman)

After spending months (or years) on a story, it becomes a part of me. Ingrained in my flesh. My characters—even the unlikable ones—are my friends. I have experienced each scene in the novel with all of my senses. So cutting any part away can be painful.

And necessary.

Cutting the extraneous parts creates this:

My current project, Miss Fortune Cookie—a story about three girls about to graduate from a high-pressure academic high school, their friendship triangle, and an advice blog gone awry—needs some precise cutting right now. I started the novel in 2008, and have been through two revisions. All the pieces of the story connect together.

Recently, I had this conversation with my editor about my main character in my latest draft.

“Where’s Erin?” my editor asked me. “The story arcs for your secondary characters overshadow Erin’s story. What does Erin want?”

My editor’s question has haunted me for weeks now. Because at the beginning of the story, Erin has no confidence in herself. She doesn’t know what she wants. This state of affairs, of course, changes as the novel progresses, and Erin learns to trust her own instincts.

So I brainstormed over the phone with my editor. And then thought of more ideas on my own. Rewrote the first three chapters. Called my editor, again. Brainstormed some more. Rewrote the first three chapters. Called my editor …

After two weeks of this I couldn’t see the story at all. I was in agony.

Since I didn’t want to call my editor one more time, I asked my writing pals from the 2009 Debutantes to be fresh eyes for me. Our own Janet Gurtler, author of I’m Not Her, volunteered to go first. She not only restored my confidence in my writing by loving my first chapters (Thank you Janet!!!!!!!), she made a number brilliant suggestions that strengthened my opening.

And my writing mojo came back. I felt glorious. Alive.

After incorporating Janet’s suggestions, I sent my chapters to another 2009 Debutante, Megan Crewe, author of Give Up the Ghost. She also loved them, but said one thing that stabbed me like a knife. “Your beginning would be more grabby if it was clearer to the reader what Erin wanted.”


I knew that Megan had it right, though. But still not how to achieve it. After reading her email, I spent an hour cursing the universe, pacing around the house, and cleaning furiously. And then (miraculously), after weeks of having no clue, an idea came to me in a flash. Something Erin could want in the first chapter that works with Erin’s personality and the story itself. An idea that tightened the crystalline structure of the whole novel, in fact.

Here’s it is in plain math --

Critique = Intense pain + distress + cutting + adding + changing = a better story


  1. This really struck a chord. It's so true, how other eyes can help us see. Sounds like you have a great writing posse.

  2. I've been working on this issue, too. I kept having scenes where a character was denying a want--slipping into "well, whatever." It's OK to have her deny wanting something if the reader can tell she really does want it, but not OK if she really doesn't care. Because if she doesn't care, why should my reader?

  3. I'm new to this blog, referred here by Jennifer Hubbard and have to say thanks for this great post!

    I've been working with my agent for months, revising a MG, and sometimes it's made me feel like maybe I'm not a real writer, if I have to revise so much. So this is encouraging.

  4. It would be hard to be the only writer going through this! It helps tremendously to know I'm not alone.

    And huzzah to my writing posse!

  5. At first I thought that graphic was a tattoo you got to represent the chaos that is the writing process and thought, "Freaking brilliant!!!!"

    Then I read about the anguish around the story and thought, "Oh, shit. I hate that. Me. too."