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Plot Pruning

pruning firethorn pyracantha

Last week’s winter storm dealt a lethal blow to our 25-year-old pyracantha. The gale caught and broke off its stems a few inches above the ground. Thus a wall of spikey scrubs landed on the street, narrowly missing several parked cars and ditto insurance claims.

You can’t leave that lying around, so my husband dragged two cubic metre of aggressive plant out of the way. He cursed the air blue, but prevailed. Now this wooden carcass sits in our backyard, entertaining the local birds while awaiting dismantling. And I do mean dismantling: with its two-inch thorns as thick as nails, handling a pyracantha (or ‘firethorn’) feels like a scene straight from Saw II.

The comparison with editing a first draft is so striking, it’s not even funny.

They Will Maim

Every first draft is a train wreck. No argument there, except that a thorn bush is a metaphor. All the main branches, twigs and thorns of your ideas have twisted into each other to form one angry knot. Separating it will be arduous and painful. Before long, you are yanking at random parts, desperate for it to make sense. Except that when you pull too hard, you risk breaking whatever healthy branches in the process.

So if you want to untangle that mess without killing the core, you have no choice but to go in. Not a pleasant prospect, since like pyracanthas, first drafts have a tendency to horrifically maim anyone who comes too close. A gardener will be digging splinters from their flesh for days. Writers will come across offending sentence structures, adverbs and other eye sores that fray their sanity and self-confidence.

Fortunately, dismantling a pyracantha can teach you valuable lessons about keeping safe while editing your first draft.

Advanced Pruning

Editing a first draft is often said to resemble a massacre. Dead-end subplots, boring characters, pointless descriptions, they have to go. Snip, cut and prune that bastard until only the good bits remain, then nurse the surviving buds and branches until it grows into a blooming story.

In theory, anyway.

Dead Wood
First piece of advice my pyracantha gave me: leave it alone for a while. In time, any parts that were dead or dying to begin with will get a chance to wither. Not only are dead branches easier to cut, but their thorns go blunt, too. Not much, but enough to reduce the sting.

So leave a first draft to wither. When you come back to it after a few days or a few weeks, the bad parts will stand out like a sore thumb and it will be less painful to kill what you believed were your darlings.

Hacking & Slashing
However, the hack-slash technique of editing is much like going for the largest branches first. Those are a devil to untangle, because the clever subplots and minor characters you devised on the fly have entwined themselves with the major theme and the main characters. Removing one without seriously damaging the other is all but impossible.

It is a fast method, and a thorough one if you don’t mind taking a long time afterwards to stitch up the cuts and gashes left by your endeavour. Chances are you won’t discover how your slashing spree disembowelled other parts of the story until halfway through the rewrite, you find yourself facing a dead end where there wasn’t supposed to be one.

And if going in with a hacksaw left your too injured, you might even give up on the story altogether.

Snipping & Pruning
Alternatively, you can cut all the twigs and large thorns first. Of course that will take longer, but as you meticulously snip your way, it soon becomes clear how the larger branches are interconnected. By cutting off only the bits that count, you avoid unnecessary scratches to your self-esteem, and the larger branches come apart easily – without damaging the parts of the plant, eh, story you want to keep alive.

Waste Disposal

At long last, you have cut your first draft down to size. Now what to do with the leftovers of your carnage? It is tempting to throw out the babies with the bathwater. For the smaller twigs, like single sentences or the odd paragraph, that might be the right decision. But larger branches, stripped of their painful thorns, can come in use for other purposes.

Whenever you cut an entire scene or character, cut those sections but paste them in a separate file. Who knows what inspiration they may sprout for your next project?

Safe pruning editing!

2 thoughts on “Plot Pruning”

  1. Em says:

    What an interesting read. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

    PS: Why am I thinking of a tree pruner in Faverolles? 😉

    1. Chris Chelser says:

      Haha, I’m sure that particular pruner would have had a loss less trouble wrestling our pyracantha into submission. 🙂

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