Sunday, January 15, 2006

Pruning for the Good

This weekend was traumatic for me. I go through it every year. Pruning my rosebushes.

I have six red rosebushes that line the walk in front of my house. I planted the bushes myself three years ago. Each year they produce red roses the size of dessert plates. People knock on the door to ask what variety they are and, last year, I had people stopping to take photos of them.

So what's the big problem, you ask? I HATE to prune them.

I had to prune them today because, with the warm winter we're having, they are already beginning to bud out. There are already a dozen tiny little roses at a time of year when the bushes should be dormant. It kills me to have to cut branches with buds and little roses. I know I have to do it. I just hate it. It usually takes me two days. The first day I work up to it by just trimming the deadwood and the badly placed canes. The second day I get down to business and take them down to eighteen inches from the ground.

This afternoon, I was standing there staring at one of the bushes, thinking how much I hated to "hurt" the bush. An elderly neighbor hobbled up. "I've been watching you for thirty minutes. Give me the damn clippers."

While I watched, Richard chopped and hacked and generally murdered my poor bushes. When he was through, they looked the way I knew they should--and he had just saved me three hours of work--by doing in twenty minutes what would have taken me all afternoon.

Silly, I know. But it's one of my quirks. The same quirk makes it difficult for me to cut my manuscripts. I hate to cut the deadwood. Fortunately, I've found a way to trick myself. I create an "overflow" folder on the computer. When I think something needs to be cut, I move the offending passage to that overflow folder. That way, I tell myself I can always put it back later. Of course, I quickly realize the manuscript reads better without it and rarely reinstate the excess verbiage.

The lesson to be learned is that roses and manuscripts both benefit from healthy pruning. Cut out the purple prose, the deadwood, the things that slow your action. Even if you have to "fool" yourself the way I do, make your prose lean and spare. Don't use fifty words when fifteen will do as well. Don't over-explain. Have respect for your readers. Trust them to make the leaps and to understand what you're trying to say.

Check your manuscript pages. There should be a healthy amount of white space (like the ventilation around the rose canes). If you're doing a lot of narration, there won't be much white space. You need to go back to cut most of the narration out.

Remember -- think spare and lean. Like my roses, your manuscripts will thank you later by producing beautiful results.

No comments: