Mountain and Canyon by Betsy James

Molecules and Metaphor:

Betsy James
On Writing and Teaching Speculative Fiction

On Serious Cutting: Three Metaphors

“Cut it down by half, leaving nothing out.”
—James Barrie (of Peter Pan)

The machete was my Dad’s. In the 1930s he was a mining engineer in Argentina, working pack mules in the Andes. In those days the machete saw a lot of use, but when Dad died neither of my brothers claimed it. Heirlooms shouldn’t leave the family; I took it myself, feeling odd that the only daughter should inherit that gigantic phallic blade.

Then I edited my first novel, and found out why an instrument of merciless reduction had come to me. It hangs over my computer, a reminder to cut to the chase.

More Dad advice. Before you hike off-trail, look at a map. Memorize the 3 Rs: Rivers, Roads, and Ridges. If you know them you can orient yourself and keep from getting terminally lost.

We all write with our noses on the paper. In rewrite we pull back—think of the minus button on a Google map—to identify the Rivers, Roads, and Ridges of fiction: elements like plot, action and character arc that are the basic geography of story.

That geography is what orients the reader. The rewriter’s task is to trim off flourishes, clever asides, generalities, repetitions, qualifiers, redundancies, prolixites and indirections. To clarify the lay of the land. When you can’t see the forest for the trees, it’s time to sharpen your machete and cut back to its bedrock.

I took a folkdance workshop from a famous Balkan dancer. He demonstrated what he called the Doris Dingdong School of Balkan Dance: dramatic, extended, emotive, frilly and, well, pretty silly-looking.

“That’s not how they dance in the Balkans,” he said. “In the Balkans you subtly shift from foot to foot. That’s all. Because you know you’re going to dance all night.”

Learn to recognize your center of gravity. Pare down to it, practice the subtle shift, and you’ll be able to dance all night.

Photo by Betsy James 

Betsy James is the author of 17 books. Her latest novel, Roadsouls, was finalist for the 2017 World Fantasy Award. She lives in Albuquerque, NM, where she teaches, paints, and hikes in the wilderness. Find out more at