I’m in the midst of editing a novel that needs to be cut down by a third and I confess, wiping out broad swaths of thoughtful, beautifully composed prose is not easy, even for someone who believes in a stringent edits the way some folks believe in juice cleanses, never going to sleep angry, or a morning constitutional. So I found John McPhee’s piece on Writing By Omission
especially helpful. In truth, most everything McPhee writes about writing is instructive, smart, subtle and so well built as to have no seams showing. A piece that at first seems meandering and conversational is invariably a feat of engineering (for more on this see McPhee on structure.)
How do you decide what to cut? In her recent post, Erin cited Hemingway’s counsel to “write drunk and edit sober.” Does that method work for you? When charged with transforming your shaggy dog sort of tale into a sleek greyhound, do you agonize, rail, sulk or simply get down to the business of shearing? I’m a bit of a railer—after all, I LIKE long books, I’m a devotee of the doorstop. In my own weird universe, a dense book means a longer stay in the world of the story. And who wouldn’t welcome an extra week’s vacation?
Of course, the industry in which I work rarely shares my view, and I’d be a poor sort of agent not to communicate this to my clients. Most any book above 150K words is a non-starter, especially for first time authors; why? First, there’s the high production costs of a printing, shipping and storing a brick of a book, but it’s also true that people are understandably parsimonious with their time. Publishers are afraid that long novels are off-putting. Maybe that’s true. There are certainly plenty of other contenders for our leisure–social media, online games, clever, much-talked-about TV. But that the otherwise smart site Medium.com actually estimates how much time it will take its readers to complete a piece actually offends me. The delight of reading is that it is atemporal. That the words—whether on a page or screen or read by an actor from an audiobook–vanish and with them, any sense of regular time passing.
I can read on a page or a screen with equal ease, but cutting is a task that is best done on paper, and not electronically. There is something bloodthirstily satisfying about a diagonal slash through a page that the Kindle highlight function cannot match. How do you, as F. Scott Fitz may or may not have said, kill your darlings?