Cut Me a Story
The first novel I queried was 180,000 words long. I got nothing but form rejections in response.
I've always had confidence in my writing, in my ability to place one word after another. But cutting is an art that has taken me a long time to master. In fact, my learning curve is still pretty steep. I'm past the hard part, though, the denial phase, the self-delusional insistence that all 180,000 words in a 180,000 word manuscript are critical to the story.
The ability to erase words is every bit as important as the ability to compose them. I think writing programs ought to have at least one course in cutting. Rather than give students a blank piece of paper and say, "Write me something," give them a page full of text and say, "Cut me something." Otherwise it's like a driving instructor teaching use of the accelerator but not the brake.
Of course the main reason cutting is hard is because we fall in love with our words. Like parents with 180,000 children, we hypnotize ourselves into believing they're all equal, and should be enrolled in the best schools. My rude awakening came when veteran author Mark Terry offered to look at the first chapter of The Tavernier Stones. I happily emailed it to him; I was particularly proud of how my story opened, even though beta readers were telling me it opened too slowly (what the hell did they know?). Mark took scissors to the chapter and returned it to me 40% of its former length.
The gall. The impertinence! As I read the shortened version I thought of visiting a church, not to light a candle for Mr. Terry, rather to blow one out. That'll show him! But when I'd finished reading I realized the chapter was better, a lot better. Less was more. Later, when an editor asked me to make cuts throughout the manuscript, he said, "Do it like you did it in chapter one. You did it right in chapter one." The hell I did.
The question writers must ask themselves, as they go over each scene, is this: Is it absolutely necessary to the story? Absolutely? Although thankfully I didn't open my story with the weather, I did include a paragraph about it:
"Somewhere in the sky overhead the sun was broiling. But at Hamburg's latitude, fully a month before the end of spring, it's rays failed to get any leverage on the fog and sleet obscuring the city. The city's residents didn't bother complaining about their plight. They just ducked their heads against the stinging ice and patiently reminded themselves the sun would eventually reappear for an ecstatic seventy-two hour period known as summer."
The Tavernier Stones was first pitched at 145,000 words. It was published at about 90,000. Fifty-five thousand of my little darlings, including those describing the weather, gave their lives so that others might carry on. I hope to sacrifice fewer victims in the future, and one day I might write efficiently enough to avoid bloodshed altogether. Until then, every scene, every paragraph, every word is subject to Steve the Inquisitor paying them an unwelcome visit in the dark of night.
Now go cut yourself a story.