How often have you found, when editing a manuscript, that it's the sentence you treasure most that becomes the one that has to go?
A correspondent made the point in our recent discussion ‘Cut, Cut, Cut’. While I recognised its validity at the time, thinking of examples from my own career, I suddenly found myself confronted with the dilemma again. And really it's the hardest cut of all.
I've been cutting back the For Love of Country by about 10 per cent from its initial draft of 145,000 words. Not all that difficult, for as a friend remarked the other day there’s barely a sentence that cannot be improved by revision.
So, I was cutting away when I came to the opening lines of one of the later chapters. It concerns a mother waiting for news of her son who has been posted as ‘missing’ with Bomber Command during WW2. Is he dead or alive? This whole section is seen largely from her point of view, and it began this way:
Winter came. Still no chilling word of Tom: but rather, into the cold, dark silences crept those midnight doubts and subversions that haunt even the most determined remnants of belief.
I responded deeply to this passage when I wrote it some six months ago. It seemed to take us at once into the psychology of the situation, and set up a continuing metaphor of those nightly fears and visitations. Yet when it came to the editing, I realised it really was a bit overdone. Too wordy. Too repetitious. And given that I had to cut words I reduced it to this:
Winter came. Still no chilling word of Tom: but rather, into the cold, dark silences crept those midnight doubts that subvert even the most determined remnants of belief.
It was a wrench, but I think you'll agree it's better. Tighter. More direct, though doubtless it can still be improved upon. But I've left it that way for the present. Indeed, the cut is now finished and I've sent this second draft off to my editor, Suzanne, for a first read – always a nerve-wracking time.
The draft has come in at 126,000 words – well within the contract limits, giving room for an abridged set of endnotes, the acknowledgments and references, perhaps even a few short appendices. And to be candid, part of me is secretly hoping that there will be space enough to revert to that original chapter opening, even though I know that I shouldn’t … and I won't...