“The Reader is Right”
a·bridge əˈbrij/ verb
past tense: abridged; past participle: abridged
1. shorten (a book, movie, speech, or other text) without losing the sense. “the cassettes have been abridged from the original stories”
synonyms: shorten, cut, cut short, cut down, curtail, truncate, trim, crop, clip, pare down, prune; abbreviate, condense, contract, compress, reduce, decrease, shrink; summarize, sum up, abstract, précis, synopsize, give a digest of, put in a nutshell, edit; rare epitomize “she was hired to abridge the works of Shakespeare for a children’s book club” shortened, cut, cut down, concise, condensed, abbreviated; summary, outline, thumbnail; bowdlerized, censored, expurgated “an abridged edition of the college dictionary”
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There is line editing and then there is cutting down a story to achieve another goal, to abridge. Sometimes the goal is to condense, other times the purpose is to emphasize a mood or to create continuity. How do you know when you need to abridge? When your wife reads your new experimental novella and then says, “Everything after page seventy-five is great, I could not put it down… After page seventy-five. The writing is great in the beginning, just, slow.”
A great rule of thumb is to remove anything that does not add to the story. Even then, you run the risk of front loading, creating the essential foundation for your story. I once heard the novelist John Irving joke that each of his novels starts on what was originally chapter five. I suffer the tendency to write long-winded literary prose as I ramp toward action. Tongue and cheek I refer to this as a mimic of neobaroque. For most every release, I have chopped the first few chapters without any consequence to the rest of the story.
William Faulkner is cited as stating, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Have the thick skin to sacrifice phrases or portions to improve your project.
I have another great rule, ‘The Reader is Right’. This does not apply to those that strive to give notes, share what they would have written or how they would have told the story. This rule also does not apply to haters. There are those readers that will not like your work, the story, particular content, or the genre. When I apply ‘The Reader is Right’ rule, I define a reader as a ‘trusted reader’, someone that knows the genre and suggests a sincere reaction to a section or element. When a reader states that a section is too slow, the section is too slow. There is a temptation to argue that the underlying theme of the story builds or is dependent upon a section, that the portion in question is necessary to build a gestalt. Don’t argue. If a reader states you have a problem then you do. If a reader closes the book and does not return than you have failed. Toss away the section. See if the loss matters. If there is a key element that truly is a necessity than bring the element back in either a condensed form, a new section, or play with moving other pieces of the story around.
I have been fortunate that several readers have volunteered to be part of my ‘first reader’ program to have the opportunity to submit feedback to early drafts. (If you are interested, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org). I never shun feedback.
In a short time, I will be releasing Agroland. Agroland is the only first person fiction that I have written to publish. The novella is also the first horror. Given I was playing in a new direction I was expecting varied feedback. Most of the First Readers offering to peruse my work prefer the other genres I write in (Especially our hero Cameron Kincaid). All of the responses offered contained the three red flags of critic, courteous, pleasant, and polite. Why are these flags? Because I have learned that Trusted Readers become excited, are quick to point to sections they loved, pages that did not work, and contribution toward realism.
The final reader for each project is my lovely wife, the epitome of nice. She is a floral designer and owns a bouquet shop on the Upper West side of Manhattan. When she suggests a change, I do not argue, I do not fret a months work needs to be reworked. I thank her, buy her lunch, and then return to writing. My lovely wife is doing a service to all readers. When Agroland is released, the story will be abridged (at least the first seventy-five pages.)