The Writers Circle

creative writing community, craft and inspiration

Literary Surgery

I’ve been kind of quiet lately on the blog that I began, but there’s a reason. With everything growing on steroids here at TWC, I’ve been stealing what little free time I have to DO MY OWN WRITING!

Yes, I have not given up and I won’t — ever. I was telling one of you the other day in class that the work of a novelist is the ultimate long distance run. The minute you lose your endurance, you’re lost. You can admit you’re bored, or exhausted, or simply SICK OF IT! But you keep going anyway. As I am, still picking away, word by word.

Still, I long to wax poetical here for just a moment about what I’ve started to call “literary surgery”. It’s the process that inevitably comes when you step back far enough to look at your precious manuscript in all its vast and carefully wrought wholeness and start to realize that it’s got lumps and bumps, bits of story that have grown too long, tangents sticking out to the left and right, detours in the narrative so lovely but irrelevant that you cannot imagine the story without them.
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And yet, when you finally find the courage to step back, you must that your creation is a monster.

Well, maybe not a monster. That’s a bit harsh. But you’ve got to do something about those unsightly nodules. That’s what I’ve been doing on the last third of my book. If we can use a theatrical metaphor here, my third act is a bit lumpy. The rising tension is so plodding that most of the audience will take a bathroom break just when I need them to stay put. Not good. I want them riveted to their chairs.

And it’s not even bad writing. Much of it is quite good. But the flow, the direction of the characters, the scenes that build relationship when they should be resolving it. There are even a few new characters I decided to introduce. New characters in Act III had better be PRETTY IMPORTANT! Well, they’re not, I realized as I read through the last 80 pages or so. They are symbolic of a larger issue that is really where the crux of my story must go. They’re incidental and, I see now, so are those passages.

Back to the surgery metaphor, my patient is lying on the table. I’m in scrubs and I’ve got my scalpel in hand. I cannot look at this body as my baby, conceived in passion and lovingly nurtured to full vivid form. I must see this body as flesh, and it’s got to be reformed or it simply will not survive.

OK, at this point, it’s probably more cosmetic surgery than an life-saving operation, but these days, if I ever want to see this book published by a “traditional publisher” (more on that anxiety at a later date), I’ve got to make it the most gorgeous, model-perfect manuscript that any talent scout would care to see.

So time for the knife. I close my eyes, breathe deep, then open them wide and cold and clearly and start cutting.

What I’ve pleasantly discovered is that, when I step back far enough, the new arrangement becomes utterly clear. That section with the new characters – CHOP. I only need a paragraph or two and then move on. And that motivation over there. Reorder it to make it work more quickly. Get rid of that redundant scene. Cut quick, and don’t worry about mending the inevitable tattered transitions. Once the rearrangement is complete, I can go back to the fine handiwork that I love, mending the big ugly chunks so neatly that it seems as if it was conceived that way. There’s the art, trying to stitch back the bits without leaving scars.

Oddly, once it’s done, you realize that that section you anguished over belongs someplace else anyway. That’s when I put it in my “USE LATER” file where it languishes, sometimes coming out for a moment to be tried on and rejected, only to be later discarded completely, cut and pasted in the section called “CUTS”. I rarely delete anything completely. Probably I’m just too precious about my work, but there’s bound to be a gem there that I cannot recreate. (Though most of that brilliance stays down in “CUTS” and never gets looked at again.)

The key is to find the courage and distance to step back and cut things at all. We’re all too close to our writing. We all fall in love, even if we know our work is flawed. These creations are our children and we cannot help ourselves. We made them and we believe in them and we want the world to see their brilliance, too. But the world is harsh. Traditional publishing has always been and is getting harsher. There’s no room for anything but absolute “perfection”, as if any of us know what that is. So I take my scalpel and cut, mold, reshape, slowly stitching back together my Frankenstein’s monster into more of a Galatea.

I still have sixty pages to go, so pray for me that I don’t carve out more damage than I stitch in good.

About Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

7 comments on “Literary Surgery

  1. Susan Brody
    April 5, 2012

    Judy, it sounds like you’re in the home stretch. Can’t stop now! Good luck!

    • Judith
      April 5, 2012

      Thanks, Susan. I should be wary to even confirm your kind comment in public. Let’s just say fingers crossed! I’ll keep you posted.

  2. jennymilch
    April 6, 2012

    I did literary surgery between 12 and 22 times (depending upon how you count [please, go for the 12]) on my forthcoming novel. I like to think it’s how you separate the wo(men) from the girls/boys. Go, Judith! You’re in the last sixty.

    • Judith
      April 6, 2012

      So glad to know I’m not the only one. And yes, that’s exactly what separates the wo(men) from the girls/boys!

  3. Sheila
    April 6, 2012

    I hear you. It seems the more you go through a manuscript the more you feel like slashing and burning. That’s why I am grateful to have another pair of eyes I can trust.

  4. Barbara Lipton
    April 7, 2012

    Judith, I haven’t forgotten you. I’ve been so busy this past year on unrelated things that I haven’t been able to “put pen to paper” at all. However, I am now seeing a cleared path through the forest and will–hopefully–be able to perform the necessary slash and burn surgery on my Alaska book. I am aiming for September. You will probably be too busy to even think about my manuscript then but I’ll be in touch anyway. Good luck on your last 60 pages and have a great spring and summer.
    Fondly,
    Barbara Lipton

  5. Pingback: I’m Gonna Be on TV!!! « The Writers Circle

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