It’s not easy.
I write and write and write. I create scene after scene, dialogue followed by more dialogue and descriptions of background, thoughts and feelings. My characters take shape, each with their little side stories meant to be enlightening, quirky or amusing and intended to add depth and nuance to the central storyline. My plot thickens. I realize that what I wrote is too long, that it meanders — too many words, too many characters.
Never mind that life is like that — people you meet and then forget, amusing stories that lead nowhere, days upon days that are unremarkable. A novel is a reflection on an alternative life. It is meant to gently unveil the meaning of reality and it needs to be enthralling.
Nowadays there is no time to write like Dickens — brilliant passages preceded by long, descriptive narration that sets the scene and requires the reader to be patient. We have become too demanding in our expectations. Good novel writing is more streamlined than ever. The author wants to capture the reader and keep him or her firmly engaged. Make them eager to turn the page, finish the chapter, find the answer.
I need to consider cutting. It’s painful, because each paragraph is the result of a struggle. Each sentence has been analyzed, balanced against the flow, sounded out and perfected. Each word has been selected for clarity and unique resonance (le mot juste, according to Gustave Flaubert, the master of style). I hope that what I write is good and has value. ‘Save what you cut and try to use it later in a short story,’ is the advice I receive. Easy to say, much harder to do, but art requires sacrifice.
I want the essence to stand out. I want to focus on the core of the story and shoot straight for the heart. I want the basic idea to emerge on its own, strong, bright and exposed like the marble Venus de Milo. Yet think about it. A lover who is completely naked loses some of the allure. One needs a veil, a shawl, a pair of stockings. One wants to hide, to cover up some parts and keep the mystery. It’s all an act of balance.
After much thought, I decide to reduce the number of characters in my novel. Eliminate some and combine others. Take a family with four siblings and reduce the siblings to two. It is still a family enmeshed in love and conflict, but with fewer names, character descriptions and dialogue. Take the cook, the dentist and the dog trainer and merge them into one — say, a neighbor. Save the best meal the cook has cooked, the funniest thing the dog trainer has said, and the cavities the dentist has treated and assign them to the man next door. Who knows? Perhaps it will make my reader happy.
I delete eight characters and combine five into two. I cut seventy pages, or about 12%. I am content for two days and then I start looking for ways to salvage the deletions. I am not sure.
Here is the way I see it. The principle is clear: you want the message to come across, yet a contemplative stroll through a gallery of people and places is a good thing. Without overwhelming them, the narrative will captivate the readers. Once the first draft is written — or almost written — it’s time to begin carving. My draft novel is a block of marble. The statue I want revealed exists inside it. I am the sculptor. My job is to free the statue. With every strike of my chisel, a piece of stone chips away and I feel that I approach the essence. I uncover the details that make the piece unique and powerful — the neck, the bust, the muscles. I might want to leave a small imperfection here and there because such is life, but what I have cut is gone forever.
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