My new motto--"When in doubt, cut it out!"
If it doesn't sound right, cut it out. If it doesn't advance the plot, cut it out. If it doesn't feel like it's working, cut it out. If you're not sure, cut it out!
Depending on your level of experience with writing, you have or you have not yet befriended the axe. The axe is your friend, trust me.
I wrote my first novel when I was nineteen. Somehow my plot went off on a thirty page tangent. I desperately tried to control it, rein it in, and bring it back to relevance. The wild thing would not be tamed! I ended up confused and blocked. One day while driving (driving is when inspiration strikes me most often), I realized I needed to cut back to where the manuscript stopped making sense. With tears in my eyes, I deleted thirty or so pages. But my feelings of frustration quickly disappeared. The trim revealed a plot that was burning up the pages and raring to keep going. I worked into the night and soon replaced those thirty uninspired pages with a story that progressed properly!
I don't fall for this tangent plot trap anymore. I check in with myself often--is this subplot contributing or detracting from my main plot? Is this character necessary or am I attached because he/she is fun to write about (and maybe deserves a book of his/her own!) Is this issue relevant to the book's message, or am I trying to slip in my personal agenda? I have not had to cut huge sections in the middle of my book since my first novel.
Since then, I've written four more novels. One is lost forever, but it was experimental anyway. It did serve a purpose though, it showed me I don't enjoy writing fiction for adults!
My third book was The Pet Washer. No major cuts there, just a lot of editing because I was rusty.
My fourth and fifth books are recent manuscripts that are ready for publication. I plan to publish Dead Girls Don't Cry in October and I'm seeking an agent for The Winged Herds of Anoch.
Both of these manuscripts underwent first chapter cuts. I have heard this advice often and didn't think it would happen to me, but it did--after your book is done, cut chapter one and start with chapter two.
For Dead Girls Don't Cry, I actually cut chapter one and two--too much back story. When I re-read chapter three which begins with Leah French starting her new high school, I realized this was the true beginning of the plot. I sprinkled the back story in later. It was the best decision I could make for that book.
Two days ago, I cut out chapter one of The Winged Herds of Anoch. I thought I did everything right. My original chapter one started in the middle of some action, but then I put in too much back story again! So BAM, I axed chapter one! Amazingly, chapter two reads like the natural and perfect beginning of the book anyway, and it took very few edits to make the cut seamless.
To Do: I challenge each of you to read chapter two or three of your manuscripts--could they be a better chapter one? It's fun to give it a try and it doesn't always work, but when it does--it's magic!
Breaking News--The Pet Washer will be free at Amazon's Kindle Store September 14-18th, 2012!! And an autographed copy is available to win on Goodreads during the same time period! It makes a fun gift for a child and a fun distraction on a roadtrip!
Click to get your free Kindle version starting 9/14/12