Brutality Works

I was in the shrubbery today. Working with shears, secateurs and – for the really big bits – a pair of heavy-duty loppers that will cut through branches as thick as my wrist.

The first bush I tackled was a rhododendron. It looked quite good but hadn’t been cut back for years and was taking up too much space.

To begin, I was quite careful: just cutting away a few outer branches until I could see what was behind. Then I got progressively more brutal. There was lots of dead wood in the centre and not much life. Plus I realised the rhododendron was blocking out a hydrangea that was just coming into flower.

Half an hour later, the rhododendron was half its previous size. The thing is, though, it now looks better. The straggly, intertwined jungle is no more. Rhododendrons are tough. It still has plenty of strong growth at the base and will soon send out new shoots. In the meantime, the hydrangea can show off its blooms – and get a much bigger share of the light.

All of which is a good metaphor for how to edit a book.

Can't see the shrubbery for the rhododendron.

Can’t see the shrubbery for the rhododendron.

When I write, I concentrate on getting the story out. That’s the most important thing. I start at the beginning and work through to the end. (I have a rough plan, mostly in my head, but all sorts of things generally develop along the way).

But getting to the last page is only the end of the first step. Then it’s time to get the book ready for readers and less is nearly always more.

Stories take many forms. They grow from the seeds that are our ideas. Sometimes they grow fast and straight, sometimes they twist and turn into convoluted shapes.

But it’s essential we make sure they’re not full of deadwood, broken branches… or have simply grown too big. (I’ve just finished reading an historical epic by a well-known author; a great story in many ways but extremely over-blown and full of so many obscure words that sometimes the sense of the narrative was lost.)

So, when editing, it’s important not to be afraid to prune hard. All authors will have turns of phrase, bits of description, snatches of dialogue that we are loathe to throw away but it’s important to think about whether they really add to the story.

It can be a hard thing to do – and I probably should be more ruthless with my own work! – but sometimes being a bit brutal with our work can actually be the best thing for it.

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5 responses to “Brutality Works”

  1. Mike Crape says :

    Great advice Huw and timely as I sink into revisions/edits… reminding myself to keep the story moving forward and don’t let it stall. Thanks for story and the advice.

  2. Hugh O. Smith (@hughosmith) says :

    Good one Huw. I just found your blog, like it very much. Also, I finally found someone who’s name probably gets mispronounced more than mine. : )
    All the best.

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