Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Novel Pruning

Just like shrubs and bushes need to be cut back in order to help new growth to develop, sometimes the same needs to happen with the stories we write. Our novels must be pruned. Today I’m centering in on four ways we can snip away at our work. By taking time during edits to cut the following, we are in turn creating a healthier story.


It’s tempting to think every character we’ve invited into the story must stay. But our work isn’t Hotel California. They can leave after they’ve checked out and sometimes it’s our job as the author to evict them.
Some questions to ask in order to discern whether a character needs to stay or go…

Does this individual reveal anything important in this book? Does the character feel like an awkward third wheel in most scenes? Do you, as the author, know enough about this character to support them playing a role in the story? And probably the most important question, does this character move the plot along in any essential way?


It happens quite often as an author that I’ll hear conversations between my characters and then I’ll rush to capture them on the page. They feel important. They sound good. But I’ve spent enough time constructing novels and tearing them apart to realize there are times those conversations aren’t meant to be included in the book word for word. Sometimes they are just meant to reveal something deeper about a character, to help me get better acquainted.
Some questions to ask in order to discern whether a scene needs to stay or go…

Am I bored while reading this scene? Is this scene sticking out like a sore thumb? Are the events that occur in this scene part of an already flowing, fluid plot? Is this scene too contrived? Finally, does the particular scene do its job to move the plot forward?


Ask the editor I’ve hired for several books and she’ll tell you I’m a fan of stuffing multiple words in a sentence where only one—the best word—is needed. I’ve been learning to hack away at superfluous words. Words that in my head sound descriptive, but on the page come across clunky.
Some questions to ask in order to discern whether a word needs to stay or go…

Have I selected the best word in this sentence? Am I over-describing this? Does this word paint the most vivid picture for the reader? Does this word feel a bit like a rock climber dangling from a cliff? Is this word necessary to the sentence?

Dead Descriptions

I also sharpen my pruning shears when it comes to the cousin of unnecessary words, dead descriptions. You’d be surprised how many flowery corpses I encounter while reading (and even when going through early drafts of some of my books).
Some questions to ask in order to discern whether a description needs to stay or go…

Am I distracting the reader from the story with these details? Have I overdone it? Does the scene feel crowded or as though it’s bulging in a certain spot when upon further reflection you realize nothing is really happening? Do the descriptions better help the reader to understand a character or the setting? Am I leaving a certain section in because I love the way it sounds and not because it serves a purpose that involves moving the story forward?

What’s the hardest part about pruning your novel as you edit?

*Taking next week off. Catch you back here one week from today.


  1. Hi Wendy,

    I'm about to embark on editing two of my books. When we think of editing, it's usually in terms of cutting. Unfortunately, yours truly finds it an ideal time to add things like setting. I love writing dialogue - setting - not so much. My characters are a chatty bunch, and I think I'll have to rein them in this time around.

    Thanks for the great tips.

    1. I'm having to add to my latest novel. It's a different experience for me. I've grown to enjoy cutting, but adding is a bit more challenging. Thanks for the comment, Susan!

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