Culling Dahrlings for the Pacifist

Every writer of this century is familiar with the phrase ‘culling dahrlings’ (probably). Throughout this post I’m going to explain to you what it means…and then what it means…and then what it means…

I’ve been trying to cut a novel for about a year, off and on. Since last September it has been strenuous: I must’ve averaged about ten hours a week—and when you’re me, that’s near impossible (and embarrassing to state, the amount of things I ought to have done for other people which got pushed back).

I used to have to force myself to edit, and even then it wasn’t editing so much as elongating. I wrote novellas which on first pass gained twenty thousand words. I wrote bottom-end YAs which grew to top-end YAs. My second drafts are less readable than my firsts, for their unbroken prose, uncurbed tangents and ambitious extended metaphors. I could edit out typos and increase my wordcount by forty percent—but I had no idea how to cut.

At the end of 2012, I typed ‘Fin’* at the foot of Captain’s Paper, and danced a jig.

Boy, oh, boy! At New Year I realised it wasn’t at all finished, and all along my subconscious writer self had been hinting at a finale that hadn’t even crossed my alert mind. I added three chapters—and saw that I needed more overt foreshadowing. I added two more chapters—and no longer believed in the romance. More, more, more!

By February it had risen from 90k to 132k, and I still needed a better basis for the romance which constitutes a necessary plot-point (not for its own sake—Captain’s Paper is not a romance).

I wasn’t halfway through my sixteenth year, but even I knew this was getting ridiculous.

I got some advice and read my manuscript aloud, noting as I edited (again) where it was long-winded or stilted. Contracting where I could; removing ‘that’, ‘just’, ‘even’, ‘still’; scoring extra prepositions. All the usuals (though I didn’t know it at the time).

June 2013. 127,000. Still missing key scenes.

Another pass. Dialogue was condensed and realised. Verbs were tightened, telling identified (I hope). Descriptions were halved.

September 2013. 124,000. Still missing key scenes. This was hopeless.

Every writer, surely, will appreciate my plight. Could people not appreciate my wonderful novel in its full form, its verbose glory? Their loss. It was my novel. And I loved my writing. Every sentence was a baby to me (I’m sixteen; I possess or create nothing that lasts). The prospect of violence to my babies thrust a dagger deep into my maternal soul. I tortured myself.

Autumn 2013. I entered a couple of contests—from both I was fortunate enough to get feedback. Both agents/mentors liked my style and tone, but expressed concern over wordcount. That was when I knew it was serious. No more conscientious objections. I was being a jerk.

Determination spiked, I tied my loose ends. Back up to 127,000. Still, no more yellow highlightings in the wordcount tracking document; so much gained (I use yellow for ‘to be completed’ or ‘to be revised’. It stresses me out).

I had another go. I did my research.

This time I tackled introspection. Drina is a far-seeing character, but she doesn’t put as much effort into her observance as I do into my writing of her, thus logically I justified merciless cuttings. Plus it bores readers to be spoonfed every deduction. But that was a secondary concern, ha.

Everything in red was cut in January. It lasted so long!

Everything in red was cut in January. It lasted so long!

November 2013. One year ‘complete’. 112,000. That was better.

Over that Christmas, exposition and imagery got a rigorous routing. A couple of dialogue scenes were cut altogether, along with the prologue and what I called the ‘interlude’ (or second prologue when I considered splitting it into two novels rather than one. I’m glad I rejected that).

January 2014. 105,000. YA books may be best in the region of 60-80k, but all I wanted was to get it under 100. It was stressful, it was horrendous, but the end was in sight.

March 2014. All of the above areas underwent another extirpation. Characters’ surnames, even entire characters, a brief subplot and most of CP’s humorous explanatory anecdotes were pasted in a precious document passionately entitled ‘EXCISION’, with a wordcount near 10,000. (I lost it in a memory stick failure last week; but I pretend I have no sentimental weakness for mere words.)

99,500.

I hadn’t even noticed the two-figure transition! Intense. Exactly twenty-five percent gone, with no irredeemable regrets. Such jubilation…!

But you’re not interested in that.

 

So what have I learnt? Well, so much I don’t know where to start. I’ll probably add to this list.

  1. There is NEVER nothing to cut. Or, rather, there is always more. You can either despair or feel encouraged: it is always possible.
  2. By trimming my writing I’m actually doing my readers a favour. The least instance of verbosity can be truly annoying and insulting—completely without intention, of course. But you must edit with a view towards the effect of every paragraph on the reader.
  3. You can call yourself anything, but you have to face facts, even if you don’t accept them. They’re there, and you have to work alongside them. (I don’t want to sound self-righteous, especially when I have so much trouble with exactly this, but…yeah.)
  4. In terms of personal benefits, I have confidence in my own ability to write succinctly (well, my ability to edit to effect).
  5. I might just actually enjoy culling dahrlings. Not in a masochistic way. And I certainly do feel a twinge when a particularly pretty metaphor gets the blade. But for the satisfaction when, after a hard session in the cutting-room, the wordcount has decreased by a solid 500, and the pride in reading a concise passage of my own work (always a novelty, for a circumlocutory verbalist like me), I’d do it again and again.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve more to do. 98k is still too long for a YA Contemporary (or Literary; I don’t know any more). But I’ve reached that target; with an easier mind I can turn my attention to other projects, and let it sit, smoking from the ordeal, but content for the present.

Meanwhile, I have six documents of the novel at its varying stages, and a habitual compulsion to load the latest and excise another hundred words every time I open my laptop.

At some point, having tried a few critique partners and not yet struck a seam, I’ll be seeking someone to just read the entire thing and tell me, please, where else I’m going wrong! Delighted to return the favour so long as it’s not in exam period (that, imminent, alas).

 

So here I end. ‘Fine’, I say. And we all laugh, because never will it be over!

Happy culling, lovely ones!

 

UPDATED WORDCOUNT (July 2014): 75,782

May 2016. 75,611. After a little querying (months and months ago), I’ve recently hit on a revamping idea. Well, two. Either (a) I commercialise the book and structure it as a romance, which might fix the pacing issues in the first act and integrate the plot threads better. Or (b) I model it on its dream comp title, WHITE OLEANDER, and turn it into a sweeping epic across Drina’s lifetime. (b) more closely resembles my original vision, and I see how much more powerful the characters’ motivations would be. My issue is what that would do to the wordcount. Janet Fitch’s bestseller, after all, needs every one of its 137,000 words. That would throw all my book’s chances at ever being read in jeopardy, and after all, I would keep its YA audience. Summer project, maybe.

*I didn’t, in fact, but it seemed appropriate to say I did.

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Not Eating Eating Problems, That Is

Did I mention I have eating problems? Not eating eating problems, but eating problems, you know.

Two years ago I went through a long period where I could scarcely eat. There were reasons for this: an attack of the unauthorised melancholy, a series of deceptions which led to the abolition of breakfast time, and my joining clubs to demolish free time, such that I might eat only one meal a day, and never desire any more.

But were the latter two result of the former? I joined clubs to escape both my thoughts and my friends, and it worked to some extent: on the odd day when a club was cancelled, I was abandoned to the mercy of tears, locked in my favourite toilet cubicle. And that abandonment, too, was it the result of my deserting my friends, or would it simply have happened had I never joined any clubs at all?

It’s a spiral of events and moods: a downward spiral, growing exponentially worse. And I too stubborn to do anything about such states of affairs.

I never do anything to help myself. And I could. And I don’t. I’ve no excuse. Yet still I gripe how it confounds and disturbs me.

Two of the friends I’ve spent the most time with over the past three years are exceptionally interested in food. Every day, it seems, they discuss their meal of the previous night, how it was cooked, how it could be improved, what dishes featured on the latest culinary TV programmes, and so on and so forth. I don’t blame them. They don’t know that every fresh reference to food draws bile up the back of my throat, sends spasms through my muscles and fires my sweat glands into double-time production.

I’ve always been skinny. Yes, time and time again I’ve been called anorexic—even in jest, though I laugh it off, it hurts no less than ‘ginger’. Boys tell me they don’t like stick-like women; and I don’t know why they tell me.

And all the time I get slimmer and slimmer. What am I even trying to prove?

None of my trousers fit me anymore because I’ve sprouted hips. But that seems to make the flatness even flatter and less natural. My stomach has inverted itself, so my hip-bones project quite centimetres in all directions. My skirts now fall downward, and since I’m scarcely less flat at the top, I often look like some long-skirted 40s girl starving in the Occupation.

I disgust myself! I chew and I chew and I chew, but not a bite can I swallow, for the more I chew the more repulsive the food becomes. And the more I spit the less pathetic I become to the idea of feeding myself another spoonful, for surely the process would repeat without cease, and I would chew and chew and chew and spit and retch again and again.

I thought I was getting better. Despite my little-varied diet I’ve remained healthy all these years, somehow. Because I do eat. Just enough to stay healthy, though not nearly as much as anyone else. It’s not an eating disorder because I do eat it. I do force it down, because when people are watching me I can do nought else, unless I prove myself a hypocrite and boast I’m not hungry, or lie, as I hate it when other girls used to do in the changing rooms. When one becomes what one sought to destroy…

My diet consists of carbohydrates. At least one portion of potatoes, in whatever form, every day. A single bread roll, thinly buttered. Occasionally rice or pasta, without sauce or oil or butter or any other embellishment. That is my daily menu. Yes, I am deficient in many vital substances. But I take vitamins, pills and medicines every day, and I’d rather eat what I like and take drugs than eat what everyone else eats.

There are those who tease me without mercy. That doesn’t really bother me. I don’t care what they think. After all, I like pancakes, and scoffed eleven in a row on a single night a couple of weeks ago. If I like it, I eat a lot of it.

D of E will be difficult. Last time was my practice, yet by the end of the three days the teachers were baiting me about my food. No one realised the real problem was my feet. I couldn’t’ve cared less about the food. I could’ve made it on anything, if I could make it with such blisters on my feet. Yet they will fail me in my qualifying next month because I won’t eat enough protein.

I’m scared of food. Probably. I really am.

I haven’t eaten breakfast for three days, and only eaten half my lunch. It’s this little knot of stress low down in my stomach, and it won’t go away till my self-assurance comes back. When that will be, I don’t know. And when it does, it won’t last long. It never does. Not three weeks ago I received my GCSE results, but already I’m beating myself up because they weren’t perfect. We ungrateful humans, we forget too soon. We never give ourselves a break.

Will anyone in real life ever know this? I must never tell them the names under which I go on the internet. Strangers to read of my problems, and my family and friends to remain in ignorance! What am I about?! If anyone knows, it isn’t me.

Allow Me to Explain Myself

Let me explain my absence—the absence of an entire month, I am not unaware. And in the process, let me have a good moan about everything that’s stressing me out at the moment.

Indifference kept me away from all thought of writing for an entire fortnight. Another fortnight I spent entertaining my cousins, who come over to stay with me every holiday. They’re no burden, but they do snatch me from the internet world for a time. A good break, sometimes, methinks. This week I began Sixth Form, and stress and painkillers have both overpowered and deadened my senses to the exclusion of all other concerns.

On Wednesday I accustomed myself to sharing a yeargroup with two hundred and fifty other students, at least half of whom were strangers to me.

On Thursday I embarked on our first teaching day. Embarrassment and disappointment clouds much of the day, but no more than the anticipation of hard work to come. I’ve never had to work hard, and the very idea of it terrifies me. I received scarcely any homework, and what I had was simple, but the helpless inactivity of every breaktime, knowing work would soon inundate me, but knowing simultaneously I could do nothing about it but wait in idleness, plagued my every thought. I’ve been more stressed this week than I was throughout my GCSE exams.

And since the Sixth Form Centre refectory was built to accommodate a mere hundred and fifty students, there’s no respite from the noise and bustle and strange disinterested faces.

Friday was better; in tutor groups we adopted a theme (ours was ‘army’), dressed up and participated in a day of team-building activities. Unfortunately my tutor is very quiet and not very interested in creating a team identity based upon mutual trust and combined value. There being only three boys in my group, they were forced to do all the manual work. The girls just squealed and said nothing.

And the very first event of the day prophesised well for the rest. We were instructed to cross a web of string interposed between two tree trunks without touching the string, more points awarded for the more remote holes in the web. Before nine o’clock I was bodily swung into the air by a seventeen-year-old boy, lifted a metre and a half into the air and bunged through the gap worth the most points. Being tall, skinny and light, roles such as these were mine throughout the day. So though I’m glad I wasn’t the guy doing the lifting, it disconcerted me to spend an entire day being manhandled by a boy I’ve hardly addressed in all the five years we’ve been at school together.

teambuildingday

(If anyone desires this to be removed, I am willing to comply.)

I’d looked forward to that first week. I’d hoped to make a better stab at deceiving people into thinking I was a nice person: make new friends (all the people I normally ‘hang out’ with are doing the International Baccalaureate instead of A-Levels, and thus have no free periods—I haven’t spoken to them above twice all week).

Instead I’ve renewed acquaintances in an awkward and abrupt manner—acquaintances that were broken painfully and ought to have been renewed with a shaking of hands. My tense hyperactivity on Wednesday earned me the post of loudest person in tutor on Wednesday (that’s saying a lot, for me), and estranged me from an old friend on Thursday. A girl who did better than me on her GCSEs has joined the Sixth Form from another school, and her appearance of good sense and efficiency as she moved away the doorstop and closed the door of the Maths classroom convinced me I’m probably going to hate her. Out of jealousy, of course. And that in itself is a nasty thought.

Personal and family worries have kept me awake half the week, and when I last slept I dreamed I killed thirty people.

Even yesterday (Saturday) was no relief. At nine I returned to school for my music groups (the awesome angst of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor has flooded my mind ever since); at eleven some of us left early and ran down to church to play at a wedding. Since we couldn’t see or hear anything from where we sat, and ten verses of Amazing Grace destroyed our interest in the music, that proved duller than expected.

The evening constituted the highlight of my week so far: some of my friends from my youth group came over on a whim and we put the hot-tub at my ‘new’ house to good use. One of them, and one of the most active, committed and valued by all of us, is going off to university in less than two weeks, and we mayn’t see him again before, so that was great.

Except the evening finished with their pressing me to tell them who I fancied, which wasn’t so great. Not that I don’t trust them—my Catholic friends are the kindest, most accepting people I know, whose judgement of me does not affect their behaviour towards me—but it’s a question I tend to shun at all possible costs. And now I feel bad for turning them away.

Today? I stayed in bed till midday, still shuddering at my dream. Then I watched the 2007 version of Persuasion, which upset my nerves for inexplicable reasons. (Seriously, my hormones are on a riot this week.) But the comparative quietness has improved my spirits to some extent, despite the looming threats of the week to come.

In the meantime, I have a decade of unfinished blog posts sitting in My Documents, have been nominated for two blog awards by two wonderful and inspiring bloggers, and have shockingly neglected just about everything I promised myself I’d complete before school recommenced.

But having got all this off my mind, and probably bored any kind and conscientious readers witless, I feel a lot better.

And by the way, my blisters still haven’t healed. My feet are scarred. I dread October half-term, when I do my qualifying expedition…