Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On Pruning, and Editing

A few days ago I spent a couple of hours pruning the deadwood out of a Japanese laceleaf maple tree. It's a beautiful tree, but hasn't been well groomed for at least the four years we've lived here. Not sure about its previous history.

I wasn't familiar with these trees until I moved to the Pacific Northwest a few years ago. They're quite marvelous, little fantasy trees with soft, fine foliage that turns a brilliant dark red in the fall before they drop their leaves for the winter. And twisting, winding, gnarly branches that define their shape.

When not pruned, they have a tendency to look like Cousin It from the Addams Family. (If that's before your time, sorry!) The beauty of their structure is lost behind all of the fluff. Here's what it's looked like in a previous summer, the mauve one behind the lime green:

And here's what it looks like almost naked, in the late fall:

When trimmed, you can see the architecture, the truth of the tree itself. The tree reveals itself to you, becomes accessible, understandable, the character of the tree ...

Oops - what did I just say there? Character. That brings me back into the realm of writing.

While I was pruning this tree, I thought about how I also needed to prune my work in progress, my mystery  novel that has just gotten way too bushy. It started out as just a seed of my imagination, a tiny little kernel that had promise but no substance. I watered it with my daydreaming, and gave it sunshine when I pondered it walking to work, and gradually it began to sprout. The leaves appeared, and then more, and some branches started poking out to the sides at odd angles, and twisting back on themselves, and now I need to do some good editing on it.

And as with pruning my maple, different parts need different levels of edit. In some areas, there's just some deadwood that can be trimmed away easily, without much thought at all. Clip it off and toss aside. And some small branches that haven't gotten too out of sync can be gently trimmed, guiding them back into the structure. But some places, well, they're bigger and need more consideration in the pruning. It's tempting to just cut them way back, to the trunk even, to the place where they started to have a life of their own. But maybe that's not the best way. After all, those big branches, or subplots, have a lot of little twigs, or character or action sequences, of their own. Just hacking them off will destroy all of those twigs as well. 

In some ways it's easier to prune a tree than to edit a novel. It's visible, right there in front of me. I can see the shape, the twisting branches are clearly visible, and it's easy to tell how the twigs are attached to the branches. I can physically touch them, my fingers following them from tip to trunk, feeling how any pruning would affect the whole tree.

On the other hand, editing a novel is easier, because the whole structure can be saved as a "first draft" file and reinstated if I decide the edits were too extensive. Just copy/paste and bingo! Those clipped twigs and sawn off branches are magically restored.

But then the issue becomes when to stop. When to stop second-guessing the edits and just let the novel be itself. With pruning, you get one chance. You make a decision, lop off the chosen piece and it's done. Over. No waffling. No super-glueing it back together.

Thinking, and pruning, and editing.


  1. So true. Pruning is a real commitment. Editing (as long as you save the old file) not so much.

  2. A nice, springy comparison to writing. Good luck on pruning your novel. You're such a good writer!

  3. I, too have split leaf maples, four of them! I like your comparison of them to writing and weeding out the unnessary. I appreciate that you keep me on my toes about cutting out the unnessary in my writing.