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ProAm Tips # 21

Trimming the fat.

We all know that the fat is something a good steak desperately needs. The fat is where the flavor is, and a good, heavily-marbled steak is naturally juicy, a better piece of delicious, delicious steak when cooked properly (The answer here is rare to medium-rare. Period.) A hamburger with a certain amount of fat is a naturally better-tasting hamburger, especially when perfectly cooked (the answer is medium-rare to medium. Period.) A good story is the meat. The fat is the little details. The asides between secondary characters. The backstory between plot beats. But what happens when you have too much fat?

You get a terrible steak. A terrible hamburger. And nobody wants that.

How do you trim the fat? There’s a lot of ways to do it, but personally, I stole my method (one of them, anyhow) from an auteur greater and more accomplished than I am: James Cameron. Yeah, the Titanic guy. But also the Avatar guy. And the Terminator (and Terminator 2) guy. The True Lies guy. And those are just the directing highlights. He’s also a writer (of movies and TV) with a list of credentials four times as long as his directing credits. And Cameron has (as far as I’m concerned) mastered the art of editing without destroying your vision.

Cameron shoots everything he writes. And when it comes time to edit, if the movie is running long, or seems bogged down, or isn’t working properly… he deletes AN ENTIRE SUB-PLOT. He writes his movies and television with extra fat, and then trims the fat if he has to. He KNOWS he writes too much, but in order to keep the overall vision of what he’s creating from looking like someone just deleted every third page, he seeds all his work with subplots which, if left in, expand the story and make it richer, but if they have to be cut, don’t detract.

Write everything you want. Always write everything you want. Your first draft is where you put all your ideas into some kind of cohesive form. But don’t forget that most of the time, a second draft is your first draft minus about 10 percent. Now, do you want to have to go through and remove unnecessary words? Tighten prose you actually like? Or would it be better to take that green grocer’s story completely out, and shave 10k in wordage, or 20k, thus leaving you with a leaner (but still tasty) steak? Er… novel. Whatever.

Now I want steak.

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