A Novel’s Wisdom Teeth

This past week, I got my wisdom teeth out. Besides being a pain, the experience has provided me with an apt writing metaphor. Wisdom teeth, of course, grow in the back of your mouth and don’t really do anything except fill space and cause trouble. That’s why we let oral surgeons knock us out and cut up our gums to get rid of them. Even though they’re just sitting there for the most part, the wisdom teeth are actually a problem, and so we get rid of them.

One of the biggest things I find when editing manuscripts is extra information. This can range from info dump (the author explaining exactly what bottle of wine the characters are drinking, when it was bottled, who bottled it, why it’s special, and oh, here’s a history of wine making) to unnecessary descriptions (the man who the protagonist passes on the street gets a full paragraph describing his suit) to the biggie, extra-long scenes. There’s a tendency to describe every turn in the conversation, every step the characters make, so the conversations drag into scenes like this:

“I’m cold,” character A said.

“Let’s go inside,” character B replied.

“Will you open the door for me?” Character A asked.

“Here you go,” Character B said.

“Thanks,” Character A said.

A lot of writers respond to me saying, well, it’s not doing any harm there. After all, they have to walk through that door; why not show it?

Recovering from getting my wisdom teeth out

The truth is that it does do harm there. These extra moments of information or scene are the wisdom teeth of your novel. Let’s take the example above. Problem #1: it’s boring. You lose the reader’s interest. As soon as the reader disengages from a text, you have to work that much harder to reengage them and convince them to keep reading. I’m at the point where if I see this type of thing in a published book, I probably will just put it down and move on.

Problem #2: It takes up valuable real estate. The truth of the matter is that length matters. This is particularly true with traditional publishers that have word limits, but it applies to all fiction because readers have a lot of options for entertainment, and if a book is taking too long to get through, they might just opt for the television instead. Many genres also have conventional plot pacing, so readers will expect scenes to move at a certain rate, and any lags are off-putting. If you’re going to break the rules and go long with your work, make sure every sentence is working.

Problem #3: If a part of your novel isn’t “doing anything,” then it shouldn’t be there. Neutrality in itself is a negative. Writing is about using words to tell a story, evoke an emotion, and convey ideas. A writer should have precise control over every word in her manuscript; leaving extra information or scenes in simply because they aren’t doing any harm is the opposite of that. If you have the opportunity to cut something, do it. The reader will understand that the characters got inside without being shown the mundane conversation that gets them inside.

Of course, it’s not always pleasant to do away with these wisdom teeth. After all, I could have just said these extra scenes are like having long hair that needs to be cut. No: deleting these extra parts is often as painful as the extraction of impacted teeth. First there’s the pain of actually doing it, and then there’s the recovery where you toss and turn wondering if you cut the right thing, if you should have left it in, if the novel still makes sense and still maintains its integrity without that paragraph explaining the exact number of guns issued by the US Military from 2004 to 2007.

But in the end, everyone gets their wisdom teeth out someday. Any oral surgeon can explain the harm they will cause by just sitting there over the years. And in the same way, removing the fluff from your novel is almost always the right thing to do. You can always put it back in if you really can’t stand the bloodshed.

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