he 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 in front of 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 reason cutting is hard is because we fall in love with our words. Like parents with 180,000 children, we convince ourselves they’re all equal and should be enrolled in the best schools.
My rude awakening came when a veteran author offered to look at the first chapter of my novel. 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?). Veteran Author 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 Veteran Author, rather to blow one out. That’ll show him! But when I’d finished kicking furniture 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 the whole thing like you did chapter one.”
The question writers must ask themselves, as they go over each scene, is this: Is it absolutely necessary to the story? Absolutely? Thankfully I didn’t open my story with the weather*.
That novel was eventually pitched to editors at 145,000 words. It was published at about 90,000. Fifty-five thousand of my little darlings 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.
*Are you kidding? Of course I did.
Stephen Parrish is the editor of The Lascaux Review. His most recent publication is The First 100 Words, available from Amazon or free when entering a Lascaux contest.