Establish and Move On

One of the drafts of The Burning Light of Two Stars that I sent out to beta readers was 140,000 words. I knew it was too long. The maximum length for a traditional memoir is 90,000 words, with the average being 60,000-70,000. My final book is 88,000 words, definitely tipping the top end of the scale. I knew my beta reader megadraft was way too long, but “it just came out that way.” I wrote it scene by scene. I just wanted to get it all down on the page. I ignored length. I never checked a word count. I just made each scene as good as I could. Lots of people write books this way, while others develop a detailed plot and plan and then execute it. Those writers, I imagine, don’t end up with an extra 50,000 words they have to get rid of.

I knew I had to establish what was in the foreground and what was in the background. What was the main story and what was secondary. Tertiary. Unnecessary. I’d written lots of amazing scenes that I loved and was attached to that went off in unnecessary tangents. There was backstory, lots and lots of backstory. I had to ask myself, “How much does the reader really need to know about the past in order for the contemporary story to make sense? For the characters to make sense? For the reader to understand the things that drive and motivate them?”

I also had faced tons of repetition. When you write in scenes, you include everything that makes that particular scene complete, but you’re not thinking about the fact that you used that same image or covered the same ground with different trappings in a different scene: the same basic fight between my me and my mother happening repeatedly. (Oh, but I love this line! I just love it when she says this! I just love that moment where Fiona backs out into the rain). I’d written several scenes that established where the problems between my mother and I began. Multiple scenes where I came to terms with my mother’s dementia and decline. I couldn’t include them all.

Some of these scenes had been polished like jewels already—they were filled with gorgeous sentences, powerful images and perfectly executed dialogue. They made people laugh and cry, sometimes on the same page. But did the fact that they were well-written warrant keeping them in the book? No, it did not. But at times, it was hard to let so much good writing go. Beginners find cutting like this excruciating. Experienced writers like me know it is a necessity. Sometimes it is even fun.

What helped me “kill my darlings,” which is what they call it in the writing world, was a concept my coach Joshua introduced me to: establish and move on. “Establish and move on” means that you don’t repeat the same thing again and again. Each scene has to add something new. It’s the exact opposite of journalism where you “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.” Instead, you trust your readers to get it the first time.

“Establish and move on” means assessing every chapter, every scene, every page, every paragraph, every sentence, and ultimately every word. Is it necessary? Have I said this somewhere else before? In my case, the answer was usually yes. Repetition can be used effectively in a story, but it has to be consciously established and it has to pay off for the reader. Otherwise, it’s numbing and doesn’t progress the story at all.

Joshua had me look at every scene and every beat and ask myself: Do I learn something new? Is there new information or new behavior revealed in this scene? Is there cause and effect? Do the events in this scene create a ripple effect in the story? Are you, as the protagonist, making a choice in this scene?

Using this method, I frequently discovered that two chapters basically accomplished the same work—they established the same facts, the same backstory, showed the protagonist learning the same lesson a second time—in other words, they were unnecessary. Sometimes I cut a chapter wholesale, but more often, I combined two scenes that were doing the same basic thing into one composite scene.

Or I thinned, like a professional arborist. When I was in the right mood (not doubting myself or hating the book), I could look at each section with curiosity, and with laser focus, quickly ascertain what was and wasn’t essential. Often, I made it a competition with myself: “See if you can cut at least one sentence out of every paragraph on this page. And now—see if you can cut a second sentence.” I prided myself in how ruthless I became. Not only was my word count shrinking—the book was reading better. Tighter was better.


The Burning Light of Two Stars is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook wherever books are sold. There are links here to buy signed copies, bulk copies, and to support independent bookstores with your purchase. You can also read the first five chapters for free.

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