Trimming Out the Story

I don’t mean cutting bits. I mean adding them. The little finishing touches that really tie everything together. Today we begin the final stage of the home improvement, and will be installing wainscoting and trim. The walls are painted, the carpeting is 90% gone, the gorgeous oak floors are showing for the first time in, likely, decades. It’s still a mess, and it still looks sloppy at the paint lines. Given my house became my son’s school project? I’m expecting imperfection. But when the finish is done, those will fade into the background of fresh clean paint and white trim lines and it will all be beautiful.

It’s the same for a story. Once you have your rough draft, you’ll read back through it and see all the flaws. The timeline that just isn’t true throughout the plot. The character whose hairline slipped… ok, maybe not that. But still, you follow my metaphor. It’s time to take the story and trim it out. For me, who flies through the plot by the seat of my pants as I’m writing it, feeling the fundamental shifts of pace and character only when the words hit the page, I find that I have to give it some time before I can read back through with enough distance to start seeing where the trim needs to be nailed up to hide the rough edges.

It’s easier in a house, of course. You have the baseboards, and they go at the bottom of the wall to hide the slight waviness of the cuts on that wainscoting. In a story? There are likely no convenient ninety degree angles to apply the same concept to. There will be, on the other hand, narrative threads that are drawn through the story, and there, that’s where you put your trim. You want to draw the reader’s eye to that area. Nothing too much – well, unless your story is the equivalent of a Painted Lady, with the gingerbread and all that swirly twirly carving on the corbels. My house? Well, we are simple people. Our baseboards are starting as 1×4 pine furring strips, and after much application of white semi-gloss, will reflect our understanding that very few people will see them behind all the book cases.

The story equivalent is word choices, and phrasing. They set the reader’s expectations. If you use cerulean, rather than blue, that’s a trim selection. If you switch up “She took to her company like a duck to water” with “She took to her new friend like a puppy to new shoes” there’s a difference, immediately. Readers bring expectations to stories, just like someone walking into a house for the first time is unlikely to notice the trim unless it’s jarringly wrong… like my simple square pine in a Painted Lady, for instance. It works in my modest home with the wood floors and what my son calls ‘easter egg’ colored walls. You might not even be able to verbalize what’s sticking out of the story, it’s not like the trim is shocking pink across dark cherry paneling, after all. If readers are having that little vacant smile and ‘oh… my…’ reaction to the story, you may want to review your words and phrases to make sure they harmonize with the overall plotline and character development.

One of the things I’m trying to teach my son about the project of size, is something I’ve learned about a novel as well. Clean up as you go along. The Kid wants to focus on a project-within-a-project (say, stripping the cheap paneling off the walls) and overlook the messes he makes as he goes. You want to watch this, particularly if, like me, you are unable to sit down and write the whole thing in a matter of weeks so it’s all fresh in your head. If you don’t get a chance to read back through, you’ll overlook that pile in the shop until suddenly you need that space to lay out the trim for priming… Oh. Er, in a story you may miss that you set up some situation, say, a shopper for a used spaceship, cheap, seized her chance to pick up that strangely worn ship with the eerie whispers for a song… and then you never again mention the whispers.

Besides which, if you make sure to sweep up as you go, take the time to put all the food in the pantry as you aren’t renovating the kitchen, it’s less work at the end. As long as you don’t get bogged down in editing and re-editing the story so each part is perfect… because that’s what trim is for. It’s to come along later and make it all look sharp and contiguous. Make it all level in the beginning, do your best, and then in re-writes and edits, make it shine.

9 thoughts on “Trimming Out the Story

  1. I tend to edit as I go, which is a learned perversity. It makes it hard to come back later.

  2. IF I’m able to do the story all in a rush, then I can hold it in my head. (But I write novellas to old-fashioned pocket book length novels, 50-60K, not the 120K-word lengths that others do.)

    If it takes a longer time, especially if life interferes and I come back to it after a break of a month or more, I often print it out, get busy with the 3-hole punch, and put it in a binder. Then I read myself back into the story, editing as I go, scribbling notes to self in the margins and getting a feel for the flow I have made.

    If I get stuck, I plot in reverse – that is, I plot out the story I’ve written so far, which lets me see the pacing, the plotlines, the promises made to the reader… and by seeing the structure of what has been built and all the Chekhov’s guns and unanswered questions. That galvanizes my brain into seeing the misstep that I committed and need to take out, and even if there isn’t one, into coming up with what’s needed next.

    But even if I’m doing it all in a rush, I usually pull up the prior chapter and read back into the story, making minor edits for word choice as I go to round off the rough edges. That lets me gain momentum into the next chapter.

  3. I take notes of necessary fixes. Then I scribble them off when done, otherwise I foreshadow something twenty tomes.

  4. With the narrative parts of a story I have an easier time saying “okay, this is good enough for now. I’ll come back and make it pretty later” than I do with the dialogue. With dialogue I’ll keep hammering away at it until it feels like the conversation has a natural flow to it and it covers all the points I need it to cover. I know this slows down my writing, but I’ve just come to accept it as part of my writing style/method and press on from there.

  5. I’m going to be trying out a new technique for the next two novels-I’m getting away from my “waypoint” style of writing and working on a more formal outline. And, hopefully adding small but interesting side diversions along the way.

  6. You and my husband! 😁 I had no idea how much that final decorative trim covered unavoidable minor imperfections in the build, making the whole project look flawlessly professional.

  7. For the WIP, I went back and added setting details and descriptions. That’s one problem when you spend so long in one world – you, the author, know what everything and everyone looks like or smells and sounds like. Readers don’t, or don’t remember. So I’ve been adding some trim and polish here and there preemptively. I’ll go back and do the real fixes and painting later.

    1. That’s one advantage of leaving a gap between revisions. Your vision fades and lets you see what your reader would more easily.

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