3 April 2019

Precious Words

People ask me how many words they have to write before they have a novel. It's an interesting question. Writers like me can be a bit obsessive when it comes to word count. I use it as a measure of progress. I like to write at least a thousand words every day. My problem is letting some of them go into the trash but I'll come to that later.

I'm reminded of the story about the budding author who approaches a publisher at a party. 'What's the least number of pages you'd publish as a novel?' she asked. 'Three hundred,' he answered. The writer threw up her hands in joy and went running excitedly around the room shouting 'It's finished!'

The conventional answer to the question is seventy to ninety thousand words though some genres like fantasy can be much longer. I would add a few words of caution, though. The important thing is to tell the story in a compelling way. That may take more words or, preferably, fewer. Vonnegut urged us to 'start as close to the end as possible'.

Which brings me back to the unpalatable truth that not every word I write is either necessary or appropriate for the story I'm telling. Accepting this isn't easy. Those words were painstakingly and often painfully extracted. Losing them into the oblivion of the trash bin can hurt.
There are times when I read through the previous day's output and am tempted to trash the lot. This is normal but ill-advised. I have learned to leave everything exactly as it was written until I've finished the story. Then, after a period of reflection, revision can take place.
Working with an editor has taught me that I am not a good judge of my own work.

The initial casualties of the editing tend to be the first few chapters. Often these can be completely removed with great benefit to the whole piece. Why is that? The way I've come to think about this is to consider the opening exchanges of a difficult conversation. Imagine having to persuade someone to do something you know they won't like. How would you start the conversation? I'd certainly not go straight to the point. I'd ask them how they were and try to get an idea of how they were feeling. See if there was some angle I could use to soften the impact of the harsh words to follow. So it is with my characters. They are inevitably in for a hard time. I'm about to throw all kinds of trials and tribulations their way. Before I do, though, I spend a bit of time getting to know them a bit better.
The reader doesn't have to see this process.

My first Jenny Parker novel originally began with a long detailed scene with Jenny sitting on a toilet. I resisted its deletion with all my might but eventually conceded that this piece of information might have been essential for me but it was something my readers should be spared.
Incidentally, six years after its first publication, a new edition of Due Diligence has been released. The toilet scene is still missing.