Life drew me away from my new blog longer than expected. But I’m back. Here on the farm, so are the elk. My son-in-law Robin did his photographer’s magic on these, giving a sense of the wildness of this place and the wonderful creatures that share it with us. In my latest book I describe a brief experience of my own with the elk that roam through this land.
During a good part of my absence from the blog I was busy cutting words on that book, Two Women Across Time. This memoir was too long for its market at 112,320 words. I needed to get it down to 90,000. A major task. How could I do that without damaging the story? In order to maintain the book’s integrity and color, I couldn’t axe it. I had to use a scalpel.
What about that description of my experience with the elk? Just one paragraph. I was trying to cut everything that didn’t move the story forward. Was that short segment vital? I had to be ruthless. I cut it. Then put it back. Cut it again. I asked myself what it did for the book. Discussed it with readers.
Chapters alternate between my perspective and my Grandmother Martha’s. Each of mine opens in one special place on the farm. The next chapter from Martha’s perspective opens in that same place. The farm is what binds the two of us together. And it binds these two parts of the book together. In a sense the farm becomes a character in the book, and I try to develop that character, as I would any human character, so the reader will know it better.
But I had to get the word count down.
In the cutting process I did global searches of filler words and chopped them (thanks to Debbie Burke from one of my Montana critique groups for that suggestion). I discovered a few wordy habits of mine that I’d never noticed before. Cut words there. I slashed several scenes that were better summarized. Proceeding through the book’s pages, I began cutting phrases and sentences more ruthlessly because the words weren’t dropping fast enough. I was getting too close to the end with too many words left. I came to a scene that didn’t read well. I couldn’t get the language to work for me, and in a burst of inspiration realized this was one more I could summarize and I wouldn’t have to edit the pesky language. Snip. 580 words. I was going to make it.
As I watched the words fall away I wondered if I could save the elk segment. If I could cut enough maybe I could bring it back. I calculated what I needed. Continuing toward the end, I kept watching the numbers at the lower left of my Word document. Closer. Closer. Finally. I was there. I had cut enough. The elk were back. And yes, I think they belong in the story. They are a part of the character of the farm. Part of the essence of our story.
I’m happy to say I cut more than 22,000 words. The book is now less than 90,000 and it’s better than it was before. Tighter. Fewer redundant scenes. The color and integrity remain. And the elk.
A couple of days ago I walked up the hill from my house, up to the highest point on the property. There I can look down the steep slope on the far side to the river as it snakes its way around the hills on its way to the ocean. One tall snag rises up from that sharp incline, a favorite perch of bald eagles. When I came in sight of the snag I saw one of the mighty birds resting on a scraggy branch. I raised my arms in greeting. It turned its gleaming white head to look at me, then flew, long wings flapping in near slow motion as it ventured out across the gorge. On my way back down the hill I stopped and smiled. A herd of elk grazed near the tree-lined crest above my house. That eagle and these elk were the first I’d seen in many months. I had the strongest feeling all was right with the world.
I’ve had a few elk encounters since moving back to the farm, and I’ll share one or two later that didn’t make it into the book. For now, just letting you know we’re back.