So sorry for the late post. The Web site for posting wasn't working. Grrrr. Finally, back to story . . .
I signed my contract with Jane Jordan Browne in June 1997. I had an agent again! Yippity yay and kiss the clouds! Of course, it would matter little if I couldn't rewrite the book to her satisfaction.
Details, details.Remember Color the Sidewalk for Me was sitting at 200,000 words. I type those numbers today and laugh. Back then I didn’t know much better. I thought, okay I have to cut it. The agent’s probably talking maybe 10,000 words.
Not. Try 80,000. And even that, she said, would leave me with a 120,000 word book, which was really pushing it. Especially for a first time novelist.
Eighty thousand words. That was 40% of the book!
What to cut? I mean, we obviously were talking about more than just tightening here. I had to take a good, hard look at my saga of Celia’s life. I had her in four life stages--at age 6 for the opening, then a section at age 10, one as a teenager, then at 35. This was a slow process, but I ended up learning something very important. You don't ask what can I cut? Instead, you ask what is my story?
On the surface they may not sound like very different questions. But they are. When you focus on what the nuts and bolts of the story really are, the other stuff begins to stand out as extraneous. This also helps because it's a more positive approach. Less likely to get you down--which happens to us writers all too easily. If you focus instead on what to cut, suddenly it all seems so very important, and the process is negative. Agh, I can't cut that--it's a terrific scene! Well, it may be a terrific scene. But if it's not germane to your story, it ain't that terrific after all. It's only extra weight.
And nobody likes extra weight. 'Specially we female types.
So the real story began to emerge. Sidewalk wasn’t just a tale of a young woman’s emotional rollercoaster life. It was the story of Celia’s emotional estrangement from her mother. When did she realize that her mother didn’t love her? At age six, when she colored the sidewalk. Okay, so that part had to stay. It was the inciting incident of the story (kickoff of the conflict). When did the chasm widen? When Celia was a teenager and falling in love. Okay, so that stayed too. When did all the issues come to a head? When Celia returned at 35 to the town she fled.
Hmm. So what exactly what was the 10-year-old section for?
Don't you know my mind fought this. It would cycle back to the "what should I cut?" kind of thinking in a heartbeat. But all kinds of neat stuff happens in that section! It features the town and the strike at its saw mill, and the bestin’ feud between Celia’s granddad and his best friend from way back. I don't wanna lose that! Well, yes it did have a lot of cool stuff. And some great scenes. But it wasn't absolutely essential to the story of Celia's estrangement with her mother. And so I took out the whole section and set it aside.
Note: don’t ever throw your writing away. I would return to these pages—and sooner than I'd ever have expected.
I was still left with, oh, 155,000 words. Now came another lesson I use to this day—learning how to cut wasted words, sentence by sentence. I was amazed what came off. I even invented a little game that I still use. Cutting every line counted. So if a paragraph dragged over to a half-line at the end, I’d figure out a way to cut that much out somewhere so I could lose a line in the paragraph. I began to see certain tendencies in my writing. I found I used introspection too much (easy to do in a first person story). I found that I told the reader too much. I learned how to give the reader more credit. They don’t need to be beat over the head with telling. If I show emotions properly, the need for telling goes away. I went back to my acting days, adapting Method Acting techniques even more in characterization than I had before.
In short, I wrote my heart out for the next three months. I learned as much during that cutting process as I’d learned in perhaps the last two years of writing put together. In the end, I had 120,000 words. And I was exhausted.
Okay, here I went again—sending Color the Sidewalk for Me off to an agent. I mailed the manuscript with my heart in my throat. Last time I’d tried this, my agent had dumped me on the spot. This time Jane could do the same thing. Sure, she’d liked the original—but only because she saw its potential.
What if I hadn’t fulfilled that potential?
Read Part 12