The literary agent who was interested in taking on my novel Bring Me One of Everything (2012, Grey Swan Press) said that the novel was way too long. Before it could be submitted for publication she suggested I “trim” 33,000 words. (A page of print has about 250 words, so this was 130 pages.) Although I agreed with her, I wondered if I could do it; I was afraid I would end up with a rickety skeleton that couldn’t dance. But I began the job. I reported to her occasionally by email on my progress:
October 12: I just wanted you to know that the liposuction on the ms. is going well. (It only feels like that every other week. Okay, you’re right, every other day).
November 15: I’m checking in. The book is still under the knife. I feel like going on ebay and selling all the words I don’t need.
December 21: Victory. The flensing has brought the ms. down from 133,000 to 99,294 words. That’s 706 fewer words than you’d suggested. But, I brag.
In order to achieve these cuts I had to think of myself, not as Tolstoy but as someone short, say Danny DeVito. I also had to kick out of my mind my perfect readers who would sit down with a glass of sherry before the fire, the evening spreading luxuriantly ahead of them, filled only with the reading of Bring Me One of Everything. Instead, I imagined my readers were harried, hurried, harassed, quickly grabbing a bite of literary sustenance before the next onslaught of emails. “Okay, I said to them. Listen up. You’re going to hear this once, and only once.” The nuanced paragraphs where a theme is repeated with a slightly different edge of mood or understanding: GONE. The second adjective which gives vibrancy and pleasure both to itself and to the first adjective: GONE. More gone.
In the draft, I had taken my protagonist, Alix Purcell, on a trip to Peru to meet one of Austin Hart’s lovers. (Austin Hart is the man in the novel who commits suicide at the height of his career, and Alix is obsessed with finding out why he did it.) I cancelled the trip to Peru. That’s okay, trips get cancelled.
I entirely eliminated one of Austin Hart’s friends. That’s fine, I thought, sometimes we cut friends out of our lives.
The book examines ‘collecting’ on many levels: objects, memories, lost loves. Its characters walk the line between keeping things and then hoarding them and finally coveting them. I kept reminding myself that I mustn’t become like one of them, squirreling away scraps of my work like a literary Howard Hughes.
But I did put an ad in Craig’s list (Vancouver and New York) :
For sale by author: 33,000 well chosen words (eliminated from my novel before publication as requested by my agent). One cent per word (o.b.o). Available as a unit or in packages of 100.
It was followed by this picture, which was meant to show, as you might guess, a flood of words:
Wanting to ensure some buyers, I sent out the link out with the note:
Please forward to any friends or acquaintances who appear to be speechless.
Yours in edited verbosity, I remain
I leave to the next post my report on the responses to the ad. And to ponder whether I learned anything from this experience as I wrote my new novel-in-progress Indulgence in the Afternoon.
I hope this has left you hanging (but with a glass of sherry in hand).