Sculpting That Manuscript

Terry Odell

When we first moved to Colorado, we rented a tiny studio apartment while looking for a permanent home. One evening, our landlords invited us up for a glass of wine and some conversation. She is a sculptor who works primarily in stone. She mentioned it was interesting we were both artists.

Frankly, I’d never considered myself an artist, but we discussed our creative processes. There’s an old saying that in order to carve a block of stone into an elephant, you simply chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. In writing, you keep adding until you get the elephant.

If writing were like sculpting, it would mean being able to change what comes next, but not what came before. Scary. Really scary. When the sculptor asked how I created a book, what my preparation process was, did I outline the plot, or develop the characters, I answered that I knew very little when I first started writing.

She said she worked the same way. She might have a very simple sketch—no more than a line drawing, when she started, and a vague idea of the finished product—but the actual sculpture was dictated by the stone. She starts working and lets the stone show her the way.

That sounds very much like my own writing style. I joked about how my characters were always surprising me, and that the discovery was as much fun as the final product. On that, we were in total agreement.

But imagine if you started writing your book and couldn’t go back to fix things. Once you chip away that piece of marble, it’s gone and you can’t reattach it to the sculpture. I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘first draft’ for her. Some artists might make models first, using a different, “less valuable” kind of medium, but she likes to get right to it.

I remember going to a RWA chapter meeting, and as we shared where we were with our writing since the last meeting, one woman said, “I’m on Chapter 30 and have only 5 chapters left to go.” I was flabbergasted. How did she know what was going to go into each chapter, and that much in advance? How did she know her book was going to be 35 chapters long? A recent book ended up going on for about 4 chapters more after I thought I was writing the final chapter. And my editor asked me to expand even more. Glad I wasn’t a sculptor!

But when you do finally reach the end, if you’re like me, your book is full of “extra stuff”. It’s time to play sculptor and chisel away the words, paragraphs, scenes that aren’t helping your book look like the elephant it’s supposed to be. My first attempt at writing a novel came in at 143,000 words. The agents and editors I spoke with said 100,000 was the absolute top limit they’d even look at for a debut author.

Time to cut. You start with the jack hammer, removing any scenes that aren’t moving the story forward (even though they’re probably your favorites). “Does it advance the plot?” becomes your mantra. This is where you’re probably letting everyone know how much research you did. What constellations are visible in the night sky at 10 PM in Salem, Oregon? What’s the story behind Orion? What are the landmarks visible from the passenger seat while driving north on I-25 between Denver and Cripple Creek? What kind of cattle are grazing in the pastureland? How many coal trains chug by each day, carrying how much coal? Ask yourself two questions. 1: Does the reader need to know this. 2: Does the reader need to know this now? That 143,000 word book, Finding Sarah, was published at about 85K.

Finding Sarah

Another question to ask is “Does it come back?” In my book, Deadly Secrets, I had a scene where my heroine comes into her diner and tells the cop hero that she thinks someone’s in her upstairs apartment. The cop tells her to get down behind the counter. There’s mention of a pistol kept near the register. However, we never actually see the gun, other than a few thoughts about who it belongs to, and that almost everyone in the small Colorado town probably has one. Since the gun was never needed and never showed up again … SNIP. “Get behind the counter” is all that’s needed. Readers, especially mystery readers, don’t like a parade of red flags that have no place in the story.

Deadly Secrets

After you’ve tossed those big chunks of stone, you can get out the chisel and look at your narrative. Have you told what you’ve already shown? Trust your readers—they’ll get it. Are you repeating yourself even when you’re showing?

Once you’ve got the story essentials, you can get out the little grinders and brushes to get rid of those sneaky crutch words—the ones that creep into your manuscript when you close your file. (A handy writer’s tool for this is Smart Edit, which will find overused words you never saw coming.) Check for ‘filler’ words. Just, really, well, very, some (and all its variations). When we speak, we use ‘filler words’ to give our brain time to think. Most of the time, they’re not needed on the page and merely slow the read.

Once you’ve got your elephant cleaned and polished, it’s time to get it out there on exhibit, whether to an agent, editor, or beta reader.

What’s your writing style? I’m an ‘edit as I go’ writer, but even then, I have to go back and get rid of everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

Thanks so much to Nancy for inviting me to be a guest at The Kill Zone. I’m thrilled to be here.

TerryOdellFrom childhood, Terry Odell wanted to “fix” stories so the characters would behave properly. Once she began writing, she found this wasn’t always possible, as evidenced when the mystery she intended to write turned into a romance, despite the fact that she’d never read one. Odell prefers to think of her books as “Mysteries With Relationships.” She writes the Blackthorne, Inc. series, the Pine Hills Police series, and the Mapleton Mystery series. You can find her high (that’s altitude, of course—she lives at 9100 feet!) in the Colorado Rockies—or at her website.

21 thoughts on “Sculpting That Manuscript

    • I have my ‘snips’ files for each book, and I’ve got some of them offered on my website … “From the Cutting Room Floor.” I’ve put a couple of scenes back into books when rights reverted to me and sheer length wasn’t the issue anymore.

  1. good idea – I heard Hallie Ephron speak at the recent Writer’s Digest Conference in NY and she makes an OUT file for each book where she keeps the scenes she cuts in case there’s a nugget or two in there that can be used, even in a future novel. I’ve started doing the same and it helps — you feel like all that work wasn’t wasted. It’s still sitting there if you need it, but it’s out of the manuscript for now. I imagine when all is done, that file may have more words than the finished novel.

    • You’re so right. I think there’s a psychological satisfaction in knowing our work isn’t wasted. It’s there, even if we never need it. A writer’s security blanket. I change a lot as I go, moving things around, adjusting words. Every once in a while I wonder if I should be saving the ‘original’ paragraphs–I might get a blog post out of that, if nothing else.

  2. I enjoyed the article and I guess that saving the “snips” is akin to a seamstress saving scraps of fabric. You never know when you might be able to use them!
    Happy writing!

    • Oh, you’ve taken me back to my ‘attempts at sewing’ days. I saved all kinds of scraps, most of which were too small to do anything with. (I also save leftovers until they turn into science projects because I can’t bear to think of food being wasted–that’s probably a result of the ‘clean your plate because children are starving in China’ my mom used to hit us with. Although I never have figured out how finishing my dinner would help those kids–why not send the food directly to them.)

  3. The entire time I was reading this I thought the author, Terry Odell, was a Facebook friend of mine who actually is a sculptor and I was thinking, I didn’t know he wrote novels. Now, it makes sense. This small world keeps getting smaller.

    I’m a planner. Less cutting is needed. When I do cut a scene I save it to use elsewhere. Though now, I’m offering one deleted scene, with a link in the back of the book. It’s a nifty trick to enhance your email list. Those who’ve enjoyed the story will want to see what didn’t make it into the finished product.

    • I think there’s another Terry Odell who’s a painter. And a couple of felons, too. I wish I could be better about planning. But I can’t. I’ve tried. We each have our own process, and finding what works is half the battle. Of course, what works for book 1, might not work for book 3, so we get to find another process.

      I like your deleted scene offering. So far, I’ve only had them on my website, and I’ve offered them as ‘bonus’ material for my newsletter subscribers. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Lots of good advice here, though quoting S. King, “I’m more a put-er inner than a taker outer.” I get to spare with my writing sometimes so I need to beef it up. Facts I tend to slip in one at a time as needed, rather than paragraphs or pages of the stuff.
    Most of the stuff I take out are the logical inconsistencies like your never-to-be used gun.
    And last, Cripple Creek isn’t off I-25 and isn’t north of Denver. It’s about an hour and twenty minutes out of Colorado Springs, headed kinda west. I was going to set a novel in the two towns before real life rudely ran over my premise. Great setting name, depressing town, interesting gold mine.

    • OK, first, I’m directionally challenged. I can do left and right, but barely. Yes, you’d go SOUTH on 25. My bad (Nancy, do you want to edit that for me? 😉 ) And you’d go to Colorado Springs, then turn West? (right) on 24 to get to Cripple Creek. At least that’s how I’d do it. I live in Divide, and I still have trouble remembering whether I go east or west on 24, depending on where I’m coming from. To me, I’m headed “UP” which should always be north. But it’s not.

      As for the writing, one of my crit partners is a “go back and add” writer. I’m a babbler, so I have to cut. Whatever works.

      • I have that problem in Eugene – always 180 degrees out. My wife had the same issue on the east coast because the ocean was on the ‘wrong’ side.

        I’ve got friends in Woodland Park that I visit every couple of years. You live in a spectacular area.

        • Next time you’re up this way, give a shout, and we’ll hoist a Guinness at McGinty’s. Just don’t ask for directions! And I get to Salem, OR every now and then to visit relatives.

  5. “Have you told what you’ve already shown? Trust your readers—they’ll get it.”

    Good post, Terry, but I especially liked the line above. It’s my pet peeve as a reader: when the writer doesn’t trust me to get something — usually an emotion — so they just keep repeating it, beating me senseless. I am like Paul in that I tend to underwrite on first drafts and then must go back in and flesh things out. And I used to save deleted material but one day I opened the file (called, brilliantly, EXTRA STUFF) and didn’t find anything worth keeping. It was sort of like watching the director’s cut of “Apocalypse Now.” There was a good reason the extra stuff didn’t make it, and it usually was just me, like Coppola, being indulgent. (Though I guess some folks like the longer version!)

    • Thanks, Kris. We learn “Show, don’t tell” (although sometimes telling is a better route). If we’d remember either or, not both, we’d do better. But as long as we recognize it in our editing passes, we should be OK. Most of my snips never see light of day, either. It’s a fear of forgetting those few brilliant lines you might want later that makes me save them, although I could probably kill the folders without any great loss.

  6. Nicely done, Terry. I talk about this a lot in my workshops, and the room divides (literally – I ask story planners to move to one side of the room, and “pantsers” to move to the other, just to add some fun to the discussion).

    Process is a continuum, and ultimately most professionals end up doing a little both, working toward the middle from either end, for the reasons you cite here (recognizing the need to adapt and improvise as you go). My only comment in a context of “I take exception…” is the feeling that writers on both sides sometimes have, and proudly proclaim, which is: “How can you possibly know where your story is going or how it will end or who the characters are… blah blah?) When a story plan is complete, vetted, edited, and borne of a high level of an author’s story sense, it is entirely possible for a writer to know how many chapters the book will have, or that there are four more to go before she is done, all that BEFORE even starting a draft. Because she has the whole story in her head or on a flowchart… already. Because she CAN do it that way. Because it is entirely possible and feasible and effective to create an entire story arc in outline form (or yellow sticky notes on a wall, whatever media works for you), and also to intimately know who the characters are that will inhabit the story. You do not need to write the book to know these things.

    Doing it that way is better than, and no worse than, efficacy-wise, that coming from the other side of the continuum. Some people need sheet music, others play by ear. You can’t tell the difference when you hear music played well.

    Process always has an initial phase of “searching for the story.” We have to find our story, in full, before we can write a draft that fully works. If a writer doesn’t know the ending AS they write a draft, then that draft is part of the search phase. It is a “search draft.” And once a good ending is evident, the entire draft (or, for that matter, the entire outline) needs to be deeply edited or recast in context to that ending. Planners simply do the same thing, in a different way.

    Here’s the good news, and the news that puts all of us, regardless of process, in the same boat: the criteria, benchmarks, standards, structures and essences that apply to a good story are EXACTLY THE SAME for organic writers (pantsers) and story planners. No difference whatsoever.

    Which means process is simply that, nothing more. One doesn’t trump the other, and writers who proclaim “How can you possibly do it that way?” come from both sides. It’s a naïve, hubris-riddled question. Many great and famous writers are pantsers, and just as many are rabid planners. The books they write, the books of theirs that we read, bear no evidence of a difference in process. We all get to choose what works for us. The only risk is to believe that somehow the “other guys” can’t do it as well, that their method can’t work, which is simply not true.

    • My “How can you possibly do that” shouldn’t be taken to mean I think it’s wrong. I’m in awe of people who can. At a conference not long ago, two well-respected mystery writers came from opposite ends of the spectrum, and both said, “I do it this way because I’m not smart enough to do it the other way.”

      I like the term “planster” because somewhere, there has to be a plan, even if it’s only for the next scene.

  7. Typo, and a nasty one (because it changes the intended context) – I meant to say:

    “Doing it that way is NO better than, and no worse than, efficacy-wise, coming from the other side of the continuum.”

  8. Hi Terry. Thanks for hosting at TKZ. Great advice. My co-writer and I try to never throw anything away. We keep deleted scenes and chapters to cannibalize later. Our 2013 thriller, THE BLADE, originally contained a historical prologue which we later took out because it was more for us than the reader. Now we’re about to release that chapter as an expanded prequel short story called THOR BUNKER. For those that have read THE BLADE, the short story gives a personal insight into a certain element in the novel. So never throw anything away. You never know when you can use it later.

    • Now that everything’s electronic, it’s easy to hoard all those snippets. Although I do hard copy printouts of my chapters as I write them, and have finally decided that after I’ve used both sides of the paper, they can hit the recycling bin. And then I wonder if some day after I’m dead and someone has decided I had some creds as an author, they might be worth something to my kids to sell on eBay.

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