Thursday, January 22, 2015

A New Look at Editing: Your Novel In Eight Minutes

by Cat Woods

As a speech coach, I often help students "cut" pieces from novels for competition. In my neck of the woods, this amounts to summing up an entire novel into an eight minute spoken presentation--or roughly 1,300 words including an original introduction.

Truly, it's like editing on crack.

The process is easy enough: read; tease out the phrases, sentences or paragraphs that best portray the scope of the story; and tie them together with a nice little intro. For prose, this entails sifting through a lot of introspection and a little bit of action. For duo, it means cutting and pasting the story together through the written dialogue. Humor is usually a healthy combination of both.

Regardless, the outcome is the same. When my speechies have cut a novel for competition, they've somehow whittled down the story to a fraction of its size--all while packing an emotional punch and retaining its integrity. The only usable words are the ones the author penned. No changes can be made and the lines must be connected in the order in which they appear in the novel. No rearranging allowed.

The outcome is quite awesome, really. And, it's something we should strive for as writers. We should each be able to whittle down our writing to the very heart of the piece. We should be able to tease out eight minutes of cohesive dialogue that somehow show the scope and depth of our story. We shouldn't have a problem finding that unifying thread that connects the beginning, middle and oh-so-satisfying end. And if we do, we just might need to eliminate unnecessary character peeks or fill in some plot valleys.

This process is completely different from writing a synopsis, which is really a blow by blow of each chapter. It's also very different from a query letter summary. This is more fluid and evocative. It strikes an emotional chord and carries the, listener along for a quick, but thorough roller-coaster ride. It's like storytelling on crack.

After working on several speech scripts this season, I challenged myself to "cut" my own stories. I think you should do the same. Like me, you might be pleasantly surprised by the results or get a swift kick in the muse. But, if you're not quite ready to dice your own manuscript to bits and pieces, try cutting one of your favorite novels to get a feel for strong character dynamics, intriguing plot nuances and meaningful dialogue. It's a great way to learn how to ferret out the important parts of a story or to determine what is lacking.

Once you master those, you'll have this whole writing thing licked. Then maybe, a speechie may someday cut your novel for use during a competition. And that, my friends, is the best word of mouth advertising I've ever seen among avid readers, educators and parents.

How do you content-edit your writing to ensure cohesive story lines and consistent character growth? Have you ever dissected another writer's work to see what he/she does right? If so, what did you learn from the process?

Curious minds want to know.

Each spring, Cat Woods spends thirteen weeks straight judging speech competitions in Southwestern Minnesota. She loves the interpretation categories because they force her to analyze character relationships on multiple levels. And speaking of characters, some of hers have found their way into print and reside in a smattering of anthologies--the most recent one being Tales from the Bully Box, a middle grade anthology. If you're so inclined, you can follow Cat's exploits at or In the meantime, happy cutting.


JeffO said...

That's a really interesting exercise, Cat. I'm not sure if I'm brave enough to try it on my own, though it might actually be fun to try.

As for the content edit, I just read and make notes. What I have found is I have a surprising ability to 'see' things as I come across them, things about names that change, or knowing I've used the exact same imagery later on. I just did a read-through of my WiP and have seen several chapters that, if combined, will smooth things out and make the WiP shorter, which is important at this stage.

Jemi Fraser said...

Love this Cat! I've never heard of speeches like this before - very cool!

Matt Sinclair said...

I think this is a major challenge! I'm impressed with both you and your students. I need to see how I can apply this test to my work, too.