Assembling a manuscript for a book is a bit like getting interrogated by the police about a crime that’s been committed. Figure out your story, and stick to it. Decide what it is that you want to tell the reader, and keep only what advances the book along that story arc.
That doesn’t mean you have to have a simplistic narrative. You can still go off on wonderful tangents at times. But all the tangents should intersect on one plane or another.
Thomas Mann, in his novel masterpiece The Magic Mountain, has many chapters where he meditates on topics such as the nature of time. These might seem like complete digressions from his story of the tuberculosis patient Hans Castorp in a sanatorium and his adventures with the doctors and the other patients. But since the patients are confined to a spa in the Swiss Alps with nothing but time on their hands, it makes perfect sense that time should be a vein that runs throughout the novel. The ruminations of the third-person narrator fold beautifully into the plot and the setting.
Another example: Mark Doty, in his unforgettable poem “Fog,” weaves together imagery from a flower garden, sessions with a Ouija board, and HIV testing of the narrator and his partner. Some of that material may at first seem disconnected, but if you read the poem over, the themes of life and death and blood and illness are tightly braided.
So when I say, Figure out your story and stick to it, I’m not saying, Be simplistic, or Don’t change your plot. Surprise yourself. Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” But once you do glimpse the book’s arc—and that may not happen till you’re several drafts into the manuscript—pull out anything that does not fall on that curve or very close to it. If your story breaks down, you’re going to be the one who takes the fall.
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer