In my last blog, “Are you at a loss for words?” I mentioned putting an ad in Craig’s list, and telling friends and acquaintances that I had 33,000 well chosen words for sale. These had been excised from my novel Bring Me One of Everything at the suggestion of my agent.
One rogue, obviously not understanding the depth of the wound which had been inflicted on my ego (and my manuscript) wrote:
“Put me down for:
– 210 and’s
– 4 pontifications
– 2 strifes
– 11 yoyomas
I replied: “Dear Sir
Thank you for recent enquiry.
Sadly (for both of us) you are not familiar with my most recent novel.
If you were, you would be aware that the editor allowed me to retain all of the pontifications, the strife and the yoyomas.
However, I would be happy to provide you with the requested 210 ‘ands’ upon receipt of your cheque (I also use Paypal) for 21 cents.”
Another friend, learning of my plan, was concerned. She sent me an e-mail:
“Once you actually put it on Craig’s list it leaves the realm of whimsey and, frankly, sounds a bit demented.”
I considered my mental health, my reputation, my capacity for self-ridicule, and carried on.
Then came this inquiry:
“I will buy some words…I would prefer them in random order otherwise they have way too much meaning for an Engineer to get his head around.”
In reply, I told the Engineer that I was sorry I hadn’t heard from him before the book went on the operating table:
“I wanted to tell the agent that I’d cut out every 5th word. If I’d done that, maybe the resulting novel would have suited you very well although, as you can imagine, the book would have suffered. For example, it would be called ‘Bring Me One of’ by Leslie Hall and the Atwood quote would have declared me a ‘a writer of great and’.
A lawyer (admittedly a friend wanting to help me out) offered to buy all my “therefore’s”. But I told her:
“All creative writers eschew ‘therefore’s’, except if their character is a lawyer. None of mine was of your persuasion, therefore I didn’t have any to cut. May I suggest, sub rosa, that you lawyers use too many ‘therefore’s’ already and the vox populi has spoken. It’s bloody sick of them… Now ‘heretofore’s’ are another thing. Would you like to make a request for all the ‘heretofore’s’ I had to axe?”
I never heard back from her. But I did receive the following note from another artist:
“So $1 gets me 100 words, right? I’ll take all you have on ‘overburdened, worn out, despairing and tired’.
Thank you, w.e.burnout”
I asked if I could come over and vacuum.
What have I learned from all of this? As Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) said, “I would have written a shorter letter but I did not have the time.” Perhaps the same is true in novel-writing and the adage might be: take the time to make it short. My current book, Indulgence in the Afternoon, which I am still drafting, has 118,675 words (475 pages). I will eventually sharpen the knife again and see what can be trimmed. Of course, the issue is excellence and not length. On a piece of paper next to my computer I have written out a line from Madame Bovary. It comes after Rodolphe takes Emma riding in the woods and ravishes her there:
“Rodolphe, a cigar between his teeth, was mending with his penknife one of the bridles, which had broken.”
Kathryn Harrison (NYT, 9/30/2010) has commented:
“This sentence is worth a day’s work, if that’s what it took Flaubert to assemble the details necessary to illuminate so critical a moment in Emma’s plummet. The dastard’s teeth already sunk in a subsequent gratification of his appetite; the phallic penknife; the broken restraint; the experience of drawing a previously chaste woman into adultery so unaffecting that his attention has already strayed to a routine chore…”
As Flaubert said, “A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.” That, I think, is the standard.
I will soon discover if I can find approximately 8,000 words in Indulgence in the Afternoon which are changeable.
The wonderful writer, Barbara Lambert (The Whirling Girl, Cormorant, 2012) has as part of her blog (http://is.gd/4VtoUU) a place where she has invited other writers to post some “stricken” parts of their published work. Check it out.