Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Trimming the Fat

Cut here. Snip there. It's best to use a scalpel, not a machete. This is delicate work. Is that blood? Did I nick an artery? Could I get a little oxygen?

I’m talking about dejunking my writing.

When writing a picture book, it’s best to be thrifty with words. This has been a hard lesson for me, because I adore words. I love the sound of words and the feel of the rhythm as the words slide over my tongue and fly through the air. I love word pictures and descriptive phrases. However, in a picture book,the fewer words, the better.

Last year after attending a writer's conference, I did major surgery on three of my favorite picture book manuscripts. I learned at the writer's conference that most publishers will no longer look at picture book manuscripts that are over 1,000 words. Why? It is because they are not very marketable. Neither Barnes and Noble nor Borders will pick them up. Can you guess who drives the market? Barnes and Noble and Borders would be a good guess. Most people are looking for a quick read in a picture book. Busy parents want to shorten the bedtime routine.

I had three wonderful picture book manuscripts that were well over 2,000 words. They were beautiful. They were my darlings. Could I do it? Could I trim them down to less than 1,000. Was it possible? Where to start? I took the challenge.

First I decided to trim the fat. In a picture book , an obvious place to look for fat is description. Since half of a good picture book is pictures, make the illustrations count. Don’t describe anything that can be shown in illustrations. It was surprising how many words I could lose by making my manuscript illustrator dependent. Snip. Snip.

Still, I had a long way to go. Next I looked for details that weren’t essential to the story. No matter how clever, or delightful, if the story didn’t hinge on it, it had to go. This bought me a few words. Cut and trim.

Dialogue can breathe life into your story, but in a picture book, dialogue sucks up a lot of words. I looked carefully at dialogue. Which dialogue made the story better? Which dialogue could I do without? Where could I tighten things up. Trim here. Snip there.
This was encouraging. Maybe it was possible. Drum roll, please. Word count? Aargh. Still 150 words to go. Trim the fat. Essentials only. Can I do it? Can I?

I looked for ways to economize on words. I cut unnecessary articles, like a’s and the’s. I hit the delete key again and again. Is there a shorter way to say this? Could I find one word that could replace two or maybe three? Snip. Cut. Trim.

Would my story survive? At first, I felt that death was imminent, but I had to try. As the process continued, I grew more hopeful. Toward the end, I became passionate, exhilarated by the challenge.

At last, triumph. My story was leaner. There was no trace of fat, not even an ounce. Was it still a story? That’s what you want to know, isn’t it? Did the story survive?

I feel a strong pulse, but she’s lost a lot of blood. Time will tell, but I think she’ll pull through. Oxygen, please. Stat.

Linda Garner


C. K. Bryant said...

Great Post Linda. Sometimes trimming those wonderful words you've worked so hard to create can truly cause pain. I will be quoting you on my blog today, take a look a little later.

L.T. Elliot said...

Oh, it lived through it and it's living well, in my opinon.

I'm learning to be trim with my writing, even though it's a novel. This is such useful advice for any genre or age range. Thanks, Linda!

Carolyn V. said...

Trimming is a painful thing. You can do it Linda. =)

Shari said...

I so understand. I've done picture books, too. It's so hard when you love words so much, but inevitably your book will be better. Good luck with them!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

This is a great post. "Trimming the fat" as a picture book writer is oh-so-hard.

I have to say, though, that I disagree with the current belief that PBs must be short to sell. Pink and Say is over 5,000 words. The 46 page PB is still alive and well in the hearts of educators (and many parents). I hope the market swings back around soon.

Good luck, Linda. It sounds like you are well on your way. :-)