Sitting on the verandah of a beach house, looking over a tropical sea – with the sand, a silver sun, and a palm tree outside to give summer shade… Can there be any better place to start cutting a new book down to size?
I don’t know about you, but I always edit a manuscript as I go along. Most afternoons I’ll go through the morning’s writing, tightening things up … revising quite heavily as I finish each chapter – and substantially correct the text again when, as with the present book, I complete each of the three Parts.
Even so, the first draft came in at 145,000 words. It’s a long book – a saga spanning two generations of an Australian soldier-settler family. But as the Contract specifies a generous maximum of 130,000 words, I’ve got to cut it back by at least 10 per cent.
Some new writers might throw up their hands in horror. Such desecration of the golden words! But really, it’s no bad thing, and not difficult to do. It's amazing to discover how many superfluous words one writes when you revisit them after three years.
Everything goes in at the early stages: every detail and perception, which you realise at a distance are often either unnecessary or repeated elsewhere in the text. Cut. Cut. Cut. It’s like going on a literary crash diet … which is no bad thing either in this over-indulgent Christmastide.
Sitting up here in the ‘cutting room’ I’m well on the way with my word-reducing programme, and will finish nicely within target: about 125,000 words I reckon. Room enough to restore a few choice things where I was too severe.
It’s a matter of cutting out redundancies and repetitions … putting over-loaded sentences into simpler English (just try reading them out loud) … removing those bits of research that, however interesting, are not essential to the story … of paring the material back to those things that the reader really has to know.
Here’s a short paragraph from the original draft about the onset of the influenza epidemic in 1918 that killed more people than the Great War itself:
They called it the 'Spanish flu', mainly because it was first reported in that neutral country by newspapers free of wartime censorship. In truth no-one knew where it originated, though the virus spread rapidly across the continents – no doubt helped by armies of soldiers returning home exhausted from battle – infecting not just the young and the elderly, but most noticeably adults in the prime of life.
It’s not a poor paragraph – not over-written– and the epidemic is part of the story, for a mother dies. But there’s some information we don’t absolutely need, and given that I have to cut the manuscript, this is how I edited it down:
They called it the 'Spanish flu', because it was first reported there, and spread rapidly – doubtless helped by returning soldiers – infecting not just the young and elderly, but also adults in the prime of life.
A total of 66 words reduced by almost half to 35. That's all right. Just out of interest, how would you précis that first paragraph?
As for me, I’m off now for a swim.