So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past


Yes, Fitzgerald fans, you have guessed correctly: today, we shall be delving into the wonderful world of the flashback, with special emphasis on avoiding redundancy. Sounds like a good time, eh?

Before the screen begins to go wavy, kudos to reader Sharon for reminding me yesterday that there are in fact cliché-finding programs, as well as websites that will tell you if a particular phrase is (or is close to) a cliché. I tend to downplay the usefulness of such tools, out of fear that they will tempt writers to use them as a substitute for — chant it with me now, everybody — reading a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry.

See how hypnotic repetition can be?

Implemented judiciously, though, cliché-spotting programs can be very helpful indeed, particularly for writers who are not native English speakers or native speakers who do not happen to have grown up in Manhattan or LA. Or at any rate, not in a TV studio, sound stage, or publishing house in either.

As if that weren’t enough help in the self-editing department for one post, public-spirited long-time reader Chris Park, he of the impressive PC skills, has been kind enough to cobble together a shareware program for writers, specifically intended to catch repetition in a text. It’s called Manuscript Analyzer, straightforwardly enough, and because Chris is a generous guy, you may download it for free from his website.

Chris, I am delighted to report, will also have an excerpt from his latest novel, ALDEN RIDGE, used as an example of fine storytelling in Chris Roerden’s soon-to-be-released book on, you guessed it, self-editing, DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION. Congratulations to Chris — and to Chris, too, while we’re at it!

Okay, now the screen may begin to go wavy.

In my last installment on self-editing, I went to town on the twin dangers of factual redundancy intended to remind readers of salient points (“As I mentioned back in Ch. 2, Maude, I stand to inherit a hefty chunk of change when my Uncle Mortimer dies.”) and screen clichés that have made their way into real life and vice versa (“Say ‘ah,'” kindly Dr. Whitehairedman told the child.). As I pointed out, both species are problematic in submissions, because they are so common.

Translation: professional readers get really, really tired of seeing examples of them. (And your garden-variety cliché-finder program is only going to catch the latter, please note.) But both types of repetition also tend to be, I am happy to report, some of the easiest sentences to cut.

And if you’re like so many aspiring writers in the current market — you know, the ones who clutched their hearts instinctively the first time they heard that a first novel over 100,000 words (estimated — and if you don’t know how to do that, please see the WORD COUNT category at right) is much, much harder for an agent to sell than one that, well, isn’t — this should be very good news indeed.

Because, contrary to popular belief, trimming a manuscript need not necessarily involve cutting entire scenes. Believe it or not, it can be done line by line.

Yes, really. Seriously, I’ve cut 50 pages out of a 400-page manuscript this way.

Redundant lines can often be trimmed wholesale, with no cost to the text at all. And clichés, like pop culture references and jokes that don’t quite work, are often digressions in a scene or dialogue, rather than integral to it. Much of the time, they can be deleted without adding any additional writing.

Which is a pretty good indicator all by itself that a line should be cut anyway, actually: if you wouldn’t miss it if it were gone, it should probably go.

Take, for instance, the following piece of purple prose, full of sentences just begging to hop into the tumbrel and ride to the guillotine. As you read, try to figure out how much could be cut without harming the relationships or plot of the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning, revisiting in his mind his last encounter with Cardinal Richelieu, two months before, when they had shot those rapids together in the yet-to-be-discovered territory of Colorado. Despite moments of undeniable passion, they had not parted friends. The powerful holy man was known for his cruelty, but surely, this time, he would not hold a grudge. “Can I bum a cigarette?” Marcus asked, to buy more time to recap the plot in his head.

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. “Tobacco had not come to Europe in your time.” He shook two out of the pack and stuck both into his mouth. “And barely in mine.”

He lit the pair and handed both to his erstwhile lover. They sat in silence for a moment, the smoke winding its way around the cardinal’s red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

Finally, Marcus Aurelius decided he could take this brutal wordlessness no longer. “I’ve come for some information, Armand.”

Richelieu’s hand tightened on his sawed-off shotgun. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what I need to know.”

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “go a little faster if you were more specific.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu waved a bejeweled hand toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

Tell me, how much cutting did you manage to do?

Other than the obvious, that is — as a major Stoic, Marcus Aurelius clearly would not have folded so quickly under the pressure, and the suggestion that he would might conceivably pull a well-read reader out of the story; I give you that. But even ignoring the philosophical problems and the time travel that seems to have happened here, there’s room for some fairly painless trimming that would speed up the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning. The powerful holy man before him was known for his cruelty, but surely, he could not still be holding a grudge about how they’d parted in Colorado. “Please tell me, Armand. For old times’ sake.”

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. The smoke from his cigarette wound its way around his red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “be helpful if you were more specific about what you wanted.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu lifted a bejeweled hand from his sawed-off shotgun to wave languidly toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

That’s 123 words, down from 231, a substantial cut obtained through the simple expedient of removing the movie clichés (the double cigarette bit is straight out of the Bette Davis vehicle NOW, VOYAGER) and unnecessary repetition.

Do I see some hands in the air out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you ask, and rightly so, “was it really safe to cut that much? How did you know, for instance, within the context of an isolated excerpt, that the references to the Colorado scene probably referred to something that happened earlier in the book?”

Call it well-honed editorial instinct: this kind of micro-flashback almost invariably recaps a scene told more fully elsewhere — and when it isn’t shown at some point in the book, it probably should be.

Seem paradoxical? It isn’t.

A micro-flashback usually provides one or more characters’ motivation(s) in the scene occurring at the moment: here, the earlier romantic interlude has set the stage for Marcus’ belief that Richelieu would do him a favor, as well as Richelieu’s current attitude toward Marcus.

Clearly, then, this past episode is important enough to the development of both characters that the reader would benefit from seeing it in its entirety.

Which makes removing the micro-flashback from this scene an easy editorial call. To work as character development — as explanatory asides that deal with motivation must, right? — the reader really should have this information prior to the scene. Like a joke explained after it is told, character development presented as explanation of what someone has just done tends to be substantially less effective than presenting the relevant info earlier in the book, than allowing the reader to recall it at the proper moment.

Makes the reader feel smart, that does.

Think about it: a reader’s understanding of a complex character (or situation, for that matter) doesn’t really need to come in a single lump, does it? Isn’t the reader likely to develop a deeper sense of who the person is if the puzzle pieces are revealed in small shown-not-told increments?

By this logic, the micro-flashback should be cut — or at any rate minimized. If the Colorado rapids scene did happen earlier in the book, the micro-flashback here would be redundant; if it did not, the micro-flashback is not memorable enough in itself to make a lasting impression upon the reader to deserve retaining.

In other words: snip, snip.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: emotionally important scenes are almost always more powerful if they are SHOWN as fully-realized scenes, rather than merely summarized. (Oh, come on — you DON’T want to know what happened on those rapids?)

Keep an eye out for those micro-flashbacks, my friends: they’re often flares telling the editor what needs to be done to improve the manuscript. As we saw yesterday, they are often little editors, jumping up and down in the text, shouting at the tops of their tiny lungs, “Show, don’t tell!”

In this case, the cut can only help: by removing the explanatory summary here, the author will need to make sure that the earlier scene made enough of an impression upon the reader that she will remember it by the time Marcus Aurelius comes looking for information.

Yes, even if that means going back and writing the earlier scene from scratch. Sometimes, adding a fresh scene is actually a quicker and easier fix for a manuscript that drags than merely trimming the existing text.

The metaphor that I like to use for this kind of revision comes from flower arranging, believe it or not. Everyone seated comfortably? Here goes:

Think of your draft as a wonderfully immense bouquet, stocked with handfuls of flowers you have been gathering over the last couple of years. It’s lovely, but after it has been rejected a few dozen times, you’ve come to realize that maybe the bouquet is too big for the room in which the agent of your dreams wants to place it; it does not fit comfortably into the only vase she has.

So you need to trim it — but how? A good place to start would be with the most common flower. Pull out half of the daisies; a few are nice, but handfuls make the daisy point a bit more often than necessary.

Where to begin? How about with your favorite phraseology and sentiments?

If I were editing Scott Fitzgerald’s work, for instance, I might scan first for beautiful-but-misunderstood heroines staring into nearby mirrors and moaning things like, “I’m so beautiful — why can’t I be happy?” It’s sort of an interesting statement the first time one reads it (if only to provoke the question, “Would any real woman actually SAY that?”), but it occurs something like 17 times throughout his collected short stories.

This is what the literary criticism people call a trope; professional readers call it by a harsher name: redundancy.

Either way, I’m thinking that 16 of Fitzgerald’s iterations could go. Back to our bouquet metaphor.

You could start searching for the flowers that have wilted a little, or are not opening as well as others. Pulling out the wilted flowers renders the bouquet both smaller and prettier — and the ones that wilt the fastest are the ones that are borrowed from other sources, like movie tropes, which tend to date a book, anyway.

Already, your bouquet is looking lighter, more vibrant, but you liked the color that some of the discarded flowers added. Rather than pulling the cast-off blooms out of the compost bin and putting them back into the vase (as most self-editors will do), adding a fresh flower here and there is often more beneficial to the overall beauty of the bouquet.

So be open to the possibility that trimming your manuscript may well mean writing a fresh scene or two, for clarification or character development. Search your manuscript for micro-flashbacks that may be telling you what needs further elucidation.

If you apply a truly diligent eye, you may well find that a single, well-developed past scene inserted early on will replace scores of micro-flashbacks down the line.

It happens. All the time, in fact.

Like a good joke, motivation goes over better with the reader if it can be presented cleanly, without excess in-the-moment explanation. Bear that in mind as you revise, and keep up the good work!

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