I was cleaning out some files recently and I came across an article I’d cut out from the New York Times on January 20, 2013. Curious about why I’d kept “The Art of Adding Through Taking Away” by Mathew E. May, I stopped to read it.
And it resonated. Sometimes less is more.
In the article, May quotes Jim Collins, an author and management consultant, “A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit—to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort—that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company or, most important of all, a life.”
Chew on that a while. What you leave out is as important as what you leave in. May gives examples of products and companies that illustrate the idea that taking something away can result in something better.
But my thoughts went immediately to writing. This is what “kill your darlings” addresses for authors. You’ve written a paragraph, a chapter, something you love that you may have spent days polishing. You think it’s witty or beautiful or a startling piece of writing. It may be the best thing you’ve ever written but it’s so good it forces the reader to think about the writing and interrupts the flow of the story. You cringe when your editor says it’s got to go. But in the long run taking it out, subtracting it, makes the story better.
The same can be said of backstory. You’ve developed this wonderful backstory for your protagonist and you want your readers to know the character like you do. But a backstory dump slows down the story which can be deadly in a mystery. The answer to the problem is to subtract, to figure out what is significant to the story, drop it bit by bit throughout and keep the rest to yourself.
And research. We all can get lost in research and it’s tempting to work in all the interesting stuff you dig up but including too much can dilute the story. It’s up to you, the author, to select what’s pertinent, what enhances the characters and the story and discard everything else.
Without my labelling it as such, subtracting helped me finish my last two NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli mysteries. Since I don’t outline or plan my books, my subconscious tends to go big. That is, I write sprawling, complex stories. About fifty thousand words into A Message in Blood, I’d written myself not into a corner, but into a neighborhood with so many streets, avenues and alleys that I had no idea how to find my way out. I struggled for weeks. Finally, I understood. I needed to subtract. After I threw out thousands of my precious words, I was able to complete a complex and, I hope, clear story. When the same thing happened with Legacy in the Blood, I remembered, less is more, and subtracted the text muddling the story.
Another way to relate subtracting to writing is to think of the draft of your manuscript as a large block of granite and yourself as a sculptor. The more you chip away, the more the beauty of the story is revealed.
Catherine is the author of four NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli mysteries–A Matter of Blood, The Blood Runs Cold, A Message in Blood and Legacy in the Blood.
In addition to the four Corelli mysteries Catherine has written four romances and The Disappearance of Lindy James, general fiction.
When not writing, Catherine is either cooking or reading. She lives in the New York City with her wife.