Subtract. Don’t add.

posted in: writing process | 1

Last night, after a long day of editing This Brittle Land, I stumbled on The Birdcage on TV. The 1996 version, starring the late, great Robin Williams – what a talent, what a loss! That scene where he’s demonstrating the dance styles – I still quote from it at random moments:

Martha Graham
But I digress. This morning, I’m thinking of the scenes where the apartment shared by Robin Williams and Nathan Lane’s characters is being redecorated ahead of dinner with the right-wing-conservative-soon-to-be-inlaws. Almost everything that makes the space theirs gets removed; “Don’t add! Just subtract!” begs their son Val. (Reminds me also of that scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin where Steve Carell’s apartment is stripped to bare floors so his new girlfriend won’t think he’s an action-figure obsessed nerd. Doesn’t work.)

My point: Removing too much can eliminate everything that expresses personality. I’ve been getting edits this week from a good friend and fellow writer, John Manuel, who does a great job pointing out places where I’ve used too many words to say something, or said something too many times. My goal, with this editing pass, is to streamline and cut away the fat. But too much cutting can also pare away the personality of the characters, and of the writer. Don’t want to end up with nothing but a naked foundation.

It’s a delicate balance, particularly as there are still things I need to add, to boost the tension or better define a character. So I’ll modify my bird cage editing directions: First subtract. Then add. Then revisit. And do it all again.

One Response

  1. I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that you will disappear from your writing! BTW, loved that scene. I still quote “Fosse, Fosse, Fosse” to my hubby when I’m feeling crazy 🙂

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