Killing Our Darlings
One of the main reasons we don’t get round to finishing a book, is because we become too attached to our words and cannot bear to edit them down. All our words are beautiful, and we cannot bear the notion that many of them, maybe even as many as half of them, will have to go. Who wants to publish a first book running to two hundred thousand words? Not me, I’m afraid, no matter how brilliant. (‘War and Peace’ is good, even sublime, but I gather that Tolstoy was not a nice man, so I feel quite free to skim over endless details about battle tactics, troop movements and such like. Interesting, but I don’t need to know about quartermaster’s supplies…)
It hurts, having to delete good, even brilliant passages from our work. But it gets easier, and we can console ourselves that actually, there is no shortage of good stuff waiting to see the light of day. Every book is a compromise, a tiptoe through scenarios that may go this way or that, a flirtation with characters who may or may not decide to take up starring roles or supporting parts. And brilliance is subjective. If our audience is not, and is not expected to be, as learned as we are, then no number of veiled references to Nabokov will hit the mark, no matter how apt, witty or erudite.
There is probably no point having written a wonderful book, brimming with ideas and potential if it contains
- Too much information. Some details need close focus, others prefer the broad brush. No reader can read close focus for the entire length of a novel.
- Too many words. A high word count suggests that at least a third of the total can be culled, re-written, or tightened up. Some characters may need to take a back seat – which may give us scope for a sequel, or a new branch of novels. As a reader, a high word count is exhausting to contemplate, and not all readers can spare that kind of commitment. That said, one publisher I spoke to at the Frankfurt Book Fair actively searches for longer manuscripts, following a trend that suggests readers perceive fatter books as better value for money. (Lesson: Ideal book length is apparently as much a matter of fashion as any other aspect of publishing.)