The French Picture Book

I have a confession to make. My current draft of Haze, an Orca Sports novel slated for publication next spring, is too long. Way too long. Stephen King’s “cut 10%” ain’t gonna do it. So this blog post is advice for me, as much as for anyone else. A few things to think about as I get out my scissors and head into the next set of revisions.

I work as a part-time Occasional Teacher, usually for the primary and junior grades. Not often, but sometimes, I get called in to cover classes in French Immersion schools. This happens only when the school board is very desperate and willing to settle, basically, for any teacher with a pulse.

It’s not that I didn’t try to learn French. I studied it all through high school and up to third year university. But that was a long time ago, and if you’re not using it on a regular basis… well, you find yourself facing first graders who put up their hands and then parlez at a bewildering rate. And you find yourself blinking and translating word by word, and all the while the poor kid just really, really just wants to use the toilette, s’il vous plait, madame. (Fortunately, the pee-pee dance transcends language barriers.)

I made it through the morning. But the afternoon included a science lesson on the water cycle. The teacher had left a fictional picture book for me to read, to set the tone for the lesson.

I couldn’t read it.

At lunch, I stood meekly in the staff room and asked for help from the French-speaking teachers there. One kind soul stepped forward. We translated the book together, me doing my best, she filling in the parts I couldn’t work out. My pronunciation… well, let’s not talk about it. But I had at least an idea of how to say most of the words, and of what the story was to go with each picture. It wasn’t going to be pretty, but I’d get through it.

I met the Principal in the hallway. She asked, in beautifully accented English, how my day was going. The kids were wonderful, and I told her so. Then I laughed and held up the picture book in my hand. “I had to get help,” I admitted.

She studied me for a moment. Then she said, “This is for science. It’s about the water cycle. Use English if you have to.”

Use English. Of course. Because the point of the lesson had nothing to do with French, and only a little to do with the picture book. The point of the lesson, the thing the kids needed to leave with an understanding of, was the water cycle.

So where’s the writing application here? It’s about remembering the point of the book, the story, the chapter, the scene, whatever it is. And not getting carried away by the language.

I know how I’m going to approach this set of cuts. I’m going to go through my book scene by scene, and work out the point of each one. Some of them will probably fail the “justify your existence” test (I got that line from editorĀ Cheryl Klein, but I can’t remember if it came from her book or from the online seminar I just took), and they’ll have to go. Others will be honed so the point comes through more clearly.

And some of the extra stuff, I’ll be sad to see go. It might be funny, or moving, or just plain good. But if it doesn’t serve the story–if it doesn’t help me get to the point–it probably doesn’t belong.

And secretly, I’m excited about this opportunity. I think one of the best things I’ve written is a science fiction short story that start out at 2500 words, then ballooned up to 10,000 words as I explored the world and the characters. The published version is 6000 words, which feels like the right length for the story–but I had to write those 10,000 words to get there and find the right scenes. I’m crossing my fingers that it works out that way for Haze.

Have you every had to grow a story before you could cut it to size?

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