Imagine if you will a movie scene: A car hangs on a cliff, its front end over open space, balanced on the edge of a precipice. Several people are pushing it forward, toward the lip. They strain, metal squeals, (closeup of gravel and dirt spilling into the void as the balance point nears). The car teeters. And…

If that tortured metaphor describes my third novel, Fail Deadly, I had quite a crowd pushing, not just that one guy in the picture..

My critique groups helped me excise unnecessary details with week-by-week observations of the draft. But I kept the overall plot outline. Then beta readers said the first fifty pages were slow. I cut the words by twenty percent but kept the story line. Then the MS got on the long list for the Grindstone Literary Prize, so I felt that I’d arrived at a final version. The car was still secure on the on the cliff; in fact, it seemed as if the Grindstone pulled it back to comparative safety. More confident, I called a contact in the New York publishing world for advice. He knows lots of agents. He said, “When the MS is the best you can make it, send it to me.” 

Was it the best I could make it? I retreated to the comforting thought that you can always find changes to make, and over-critical editing might just make it worse. 

The underlying problem was too much information in the beginning. I suspected that I had left some explication in that really didn’t need to be there. One problem most of we authors face (at least, the authors in my critique groups) seems to be that, when we draft the story, we explain the plot and its mechanisms to ourselves … in (sometimes excruciating) detail so we won’t be embarrassed when someone finds a logical flaw. We end up satisfied that our plots are well thought out, but the story often carries too much detail. Which slows it down. Which is a bad thing. 

I finally decided to subject Fail Deadly to the not-so-tender mercies of an editor. 

The crash you hear echoing up from the abyss is that poor car hitting the rocks. 

Call it re-re-rewrite. 


Every story has a structure. Whether it’s the planned structure of an outliner or the ‘organic’ one of a pantser, it is always there. I am learning that respecting the unique structure of the story makes it believable. It helps it move along at the right pace. It makes twists and turns seem plausible even when surprising. Obvious, right?

Partly right, I think. To dig deeper, though, every structure brings with it both opportunities and risks. Fine books on writing often focus on the opportunities a given structure creates. Risks, not so much. As a writer myself and as a judge of writing, I’ve come to understand that a lot of almost-good writing is skillful at using the opportunities a chosen structure offers. Perhaps because risks are less discussed, these same writers often fall into structural traps. Umm. Let’s not generalize. I often fall into structural traps. 

My novels to date are thrillers which lean toward technical detail for their central threats. (The traditional thriller always has a central threat bigger than the protagonists—think presidential assassination, power grid interruption, nuclear event). Thus, exposition of the (to me) fascinating details is the big risk. In other words, TMI…or in my case, TMD (Too Much Detail) or TMC (Too Much Confusion). And there we have a shining example—three acronyms in one sentence, a good way to trip up the reader.

I’m realizing that part of the TMD/TMC problem for me and I think for others is that the more I know, the more I want to expostulate on it. I mean, I really like the stuff. This fourth thriller, Fatal Cure, is about manipulation of genes. I worked in the field. There are so many little-known interesting facts, it’s almost a crime to keep them from the reader, right? Did you know the yard-long chain of three billion molecules we call a gene is usually 90-plus percent inactive? No, well, I’ll explain. The exome (throw in a term there, confuse the reader, when I could have said ‘the part of the genome that does stuff’) is only about two percent of the total. Fascinating? Of course—to me.

So, I’m pruning. Cutting so the story’s later chapters can grow (oh, my precious cliché!). I’m cutting parts where I write everything out so that I understand it myself. Asking the question, “Does the reader need to know this? If so, does she need to know it right now?”

I hope pruning will make the story stronger. Just like it does the tree.