The call ended. I sat for a moment cradling the phone. Reviewing the conversation, I arrived at the unavoidable: I’d been asked, in polite terms, to cut my manuscript by one-fifth. That was a staggering 25,000 words.
The usual suspects
I began with the obvious and searched through the document for words to contract. It quickly became apparent, however, that as much as I might wish it, I didn’t have 50,000 opportunities to turn ‘it is’ and ‘did not’ into ‘it’s’ and ‘didn’t’. I’d need other strategies.
Hmmmn. I remembered that Graham Greene hated adverbs and claimed never to use them. Although adverbs promise emphasis, they often do the reverse. They often empty a sentence of meaning, sucking out force and verve. Surely, my manuscript had a few hundred injudicious adverbs I could cut.
Next I turned my critical eye to repetitions. What seemed so interesting, poetic and lyrical in the passion of composition now struck me as overdone (not to mention a good opportunity to get rid of some words). There were a few scenes, of course, where leaving in repetitions would be useful because they served to heighten the emotional conflict. I cut the others. I was satisfied that those that remained were made stronger by the fact that repetitions in general were now less frequently used.
I recalled the criticism of the judge of a competition I once entered. She gently commented that the dialogue in my submission was weak. After the initial sting eased, I reread it, and she was right. In getting to know my characters, I had allowed them to babble. This time through the manuscript, I cast a critical eye on every spoken word and asked: Is this statement essential to the story? Does it move the plot forward? Does it reveal something crucial about the characters? If I couldn’t answer yes, I cut it.
A quick word count showed I had 19,000 words to go.
In medias res
In the middle of all of this re-drafting and cutting, I was asked to judge a regional writing contest. The winning entries all began in the middle of things. The other judges and I concurred that this brought about an immediacy and an excitement the other entries lacked. In fact, many of the submissions made the mistake of starting too far back, lacing the work with details and cross-hatching a history that pulled the narrative down. I raced back to my desk in a flurry, wondering whether scenes in my novel did this too.
In medias res is Latin for ‘into the middle of things’. Described by Horace in ‘Ars Poetica’, in medias res is a literary and artistic technique in which the narrative starts in the middle of the story instead of from its beginning (otherwise known as ab ovo or ab initio). It’s a handy way to create interest, movement and suspense. This not only applies to the complete narrative but also to chapters and scenes within chapters.
Think about it. One of the most interesting things about meeting someone new is how much there is to learn. Knowing everything about someone or something straight off and in strict chronological order can be dull. Much of the fun is in the discovery. If readers are cast into the middle of an unfolding action, their interest will be captured more readily than if they’re asked to wade through lengthy curriculum vitae that gradually brings them up to the present moment.
Peter Bishop, the Creative Director of the Varuna Writers House says the weakest part of a novel is usually the first one hundred pages. Inexperienced writers often include extra material to help them gain momentum in writing their story. This doesn’t necessarily help with the momentum of the story itself. I’m not saying don’t write it. If it helps you get moving, by all means, put it in. But at some point, once the story is running on its own power, let it go.
When I followed this advice in editing my manuscript, I cut thousands of leaden words.
The movement of an iceberg
Hemingway once said: “If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of the movement of an iceberg is due to only one/ninth of it being above water.”
I pondered this. For me, much of the fun of writing a novel lies in getting to know my characters. I let them talk, ramble, babble, dream incoherently, waste time, flirt with the wrong people, take up hobbies. Much of this goes nowhere. But sometimes it reveals interesting directions.
For example, I’d been working on a long-term project that was most definitely not intended to be a love story. I considered it a ‘political’ work. In it, I wanted to stay as far away from issues of domesticity as possible. I particularly didn’t want to write about sex and love.
Well. That prohibition was all my characters needed to sneak around. Suddenly, sexual tension was all over the place. Everybody desired everybody else to the point they were incapable of any serious thought or action.
I gave into it. I found myself writing passages in which characters flirted with each other, got close to consummation, but pulled back at the last moment when they realised (of their own accord) that romance wasn’t what they wanted after all. I had no idea where any of this would lead, but my experience told me it wouldn’t hurt the story. It might distil down to one small sentence, the merest shrug of a shoulder or a knowing curl of the lip, something tiny and veering-towards-insignificant to indicate to the reader that my characters were living, breathing individuals.
A friend of mine, speaking about his research students, pointed out that there tends to be two types: the ones who adds to the research problem, whose thesis gets bigger and bigger as they go along, and the ones who subtract, who end up with a question and, in many cases, an answer that is nothing more than a statement the obvious. I’m of the first type. When I write, I throw in everything. When the time is right, I axe it. But the spirit of all that work is never gone.
It becomes part of the eight/ninths that is under water.
Splitting the atom
I had 7,000 words still to cut.
My agent suggested I skeletonise the manuscript, track it scene by scene in a table in order to get a different view of pacing and motivation. This proved to be a fascinating task. For each scene, I outlined the point of view, how the plot was advanced, the tone, motivation, and word count. What this process revealed was interesting.
For example, with minor shifts, sets of scenes seemed to group together naturally. For the first time, chapters—real chapters—emerged. Only then did I realise that what I’d had in place before this was merely a string of scenes more or less arbitrarily clumped together, kind of like the way empires divided up conquered lands, drawing lines on maps without regard to languages, customs, and age-old hostilities. As the world has seen, such artificial boundaries created huge problems down the line.
For me, caught up in the grinding machinery of producing a long manuscript, pacing seemed less crucial than getting the characters right. I found that, like young children, plotlines demanded constant attention so as not to wander off, and one eye at least must also be kept on themes. In the process, pacing got no attention except a prayer every now and then that it please, please look after itself. And it did. It was there—buried sometimes—but actually present throughout. Skeletonising the narrative allowed me to see the natural flow of the story.
It also helped me to see the brickwork. Because I’d done a word count of each scene, the longer ones really stood out. Looking more deeply, I realised that these were scenes that included detailed back story and a tremendous amount of psychoanalysis. As discussed above, the back story is a crucial part of developing the narrative. Much of it is a way for the writer to orient himself, to gain momentum, to create a different world for the characters to inhabit and for the reader to visit. And psychoanalysis really helps to flesh out, strengthen, and test the characters’ motivations.
However, neither belonged in later drafts. The back story is for you, the writer, not for the reader. Ditto the psychoanalysis.
Go ahead and explain what’s going on in the heads of your characters. This will do a lot to make their actions true. Later on, read the passage without the long digressions. I bet it’s stronger.
The mark of a really good book
When I’d cut out all the bad writing I could find, when I’d pared back to what was essential to the story, there was still more to do to cut my manuscript by 25,000 words. I had to look at the good stuff with a critical eye. This was painful, really painful. It didn’t feel any longer like changing out of ill-fitting clothes or getting a dramatic haircut. It felt as though I was parting with a limb.
Lillian Ross, a writer for The New Yorker, once spent two days in 1949 with Ernest Hemingway on his way from Havana to Europe. Her piece about the episode is one I admire for its breathless energy. You really get a sense of Hemingway the man. He’s lost his spectacles and must have a new pair made before the ship sails. He needs a winter coat, and they duck into a shop on Madison Avenue, where his boredom and impatience is beautifully captured. Ross overhears a phone conversation he has with Marlene Dietrich (with whom he always flirted but never became romantically involved).
On the second day, she arrives at his hotel room at eight in the morning. He greets her with a glass of champagne poured from a bottle already nearly empty. He’d been up for hours with his muse and wears the flush of having achieved something remarkable. He speaks excitedly about his latest work and, opening another bottle, says to Ross:
“The mark of a really good book, you know, is how much good writing you cut out of it.”
Horace, “Ars Poetica” (translated by Francis) www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/horace/horacepo.htm …To the grand event he speeds his course, And bears his readers with resistless force Into the midst of things, while every line Opens, by just degrees, his whole design.
Ross, Lillian. ‘Portrait of Hemingway’, The New Yorker. May 13, 1950.
This is adapted from an article that appeared in Writing Queensland in 2007.
Adair Jones is a writer from New York now living in Brisbane. Her articles, reviews and short stories have been published widely. For more information, see: www.adairjones.com.
The Australian Literature Review