Writers know that the work has only started when the first draft is complete. Details, additional plot twists, and character development will be added to help the story hang together. That kind of editing is fun. But, for me, the tightening and condensing of my prose is more difficult. How can I close the door on all those beautiful phrases, like babies in the cradle waiting to be admired?

Trusted beta-readers can be a great help, but still there are some word pictures I love and my readers don’t. What to do? I try to listen to the accumulated input and keep trimming –sometimes what is impossible to delete one day, is an easy mark for my red pencil the next.

In a recent post, I compared sending my manuscript to a professional editor to sending it to college.  For some months, I have been working with a wonderful editor.  The guidance she has given me during the editing process of Immigrant Soldier has been invaluable. She can gently (and sometimes not so gently) encourage me to do the cutting and pruning of words that will strengthen my writing. But the final decision rests with me, and I am thrown back into the dilemma.

One chapter has been especially difficult for me to trim. In it my hero, Herman, sits on the deck of a ship tossed by the waves of an Atlantic winter storm and remembers his childhood and how the Nazis regime changed his life. Much like a flashback, the chapter is meant to provide understanding of Herman’s character and motivations –knowledge that will be important to the reader in the upcoming action of the novel. The material in the chapter is closely based on my uncle’s recollections, but also on my father’s stories of his childhood in Germany. For me, it is a collection of family memories and each piece has personal significance. Yet, I must decide what bits are actually important to the story I want to tell and get rid of the rest.

Last year, doing editing based on beta-reader’s comments, I cut out all mention of the woman, a second cousin, who came to help when Herman was an infant and stayed on, becoming the real power in the home and his father’s mistress. She had no bearing on Herman’s later life and she was deleted, just as she was in reality cut from the family when her lover died.  More recently, I have had to look closely at some of the stories of how Herman and his siblings were immersed in all things German. What would tell it best? Their study of classical music and German composers? The enjoyment of the local harvest festival? Their beloved dirndls and lederhosen? The Celebration of Christmas? Or Herman’s love of the totally Germanic children’s book Struwwelpeter (Slovenly Peter)? Early in the editing process, I convinced myself that the cumulative effect of all these things was telling and I reduced each item from a paragraph to a sentence.  Recently, during the final manuscript preparation, I cut even more, taking out everything except the children’s storybook.  I hope what is left captures the essence of Herman’s German upbringing.

Hardest of all to delete are those phrases that seemed so perfect when I first wrote them but have been questioned by readers. A case in point was the description of Herman’s father when the boy arrived home late at night after “running away” for the day.

“His father was waiting in the vestibule, arms crossed over his solid chest, legs planted firmly, looking like an angry tree stump.”

“Tree stumps can’t be angry,” the track note from my editor said. Well, she obviously hadn’t seen those mid-twentieth century cartoons I vividly remembered with the talking trees. They communicated with big eyes and wide mouths on their trunks, and they certainly could be funny, happy, and angry. One of my earlier readers had commented about the odd simile, too. I tried hard to rewrite the sentence in such a way that it retained the illusion to a tree stump, but nothing seemed to work. In the end, I made myself delete the words that reminded me of cartoon trees but puzzled my readers.

Learning to edit my own work is always more difficult than editing someone else’s. But I find the struggle has been worthwhile. My work with a professional editor to fine tune Immigrant Soldier has been time and money well spent. I could not agree more with the advice that a professional edit is a necessary step before self-publication. It probably also would have been a good idea before I submitted my manuscript to any agent or publisher. Perhaps I might have forestalled some of those “not for us” e-mails. I now feel more confident because both I and my manuscript have been to college.


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