December 01, 2009

CUTTING WORDS Posted by Sheila Connolly and Sarah Atwell For the last few weeks I have been in intense edit mode for a book that's due (electronically, thank goodness) on Tuesday. It's a book I actually wrote in 2004, before I had sold anything. It's set in a Philadelphia museum where I worked for several years. I circulated it to agents, and one agent came back with some excellent suggestions for making it better–like including a murder. Oh. Right. So I rewrote it with the murder of a character who was already in the book. I resubmitted it to that agent, but ultimately she passed on it. However, I never throw anything away, and a couple of months ago I pitched it to Berkley and they bought the book, in a three-book deal. This should be easy, I thought. After all, I had the first book written, and I'm just overflowing with ideas for sequels. There's only one problem: Book 1 (still unnamed) was too long. The contract specified 70,000 to 80,000 words. Book 1 was 102,000. Sarah and I had no problems with the Glassblowing Series–the books there all came in nicely at around 78,000 words. The Orchard Series? Well, I'll admit I fudged a little, and they're all over 80,000, but not by a lot. But 102,000? Not happening. Which meant I had to do some serious editing. I write long. When I first started writing, I had no clue how long a book was supposed to be. I just sat down and wrote. I remember pulling a mystery book at random from my bookshelf and literally counting the words on the page and the number of pages. That was long before I knew about writers groups and on-line loops, and I'm not sure I even knew that my word processing program had a "word count" function. I simply told the story until it ended. Luckily that turned out to be book length. Looking back, I find that the shortest thing I've ever written was my second book, a sweet romance set in Ireland, at 66,000 words. All the others topped 80,000 words–and, once I got rolling, they started creeping past 90,000, and then 100,000. But there are conventions in the book business: cozies short, and thrillers and suspense are longer. I write cozies, ergo my books should be kind of short. There are probably lots of good reasons why this is true: some relate to physical production of the books, others to reader expectations. Publishers don't always share these tidbits with writers, but they do expect us to conform. So Philadelphia Book 1 had to go on a starvation diet. Let me say I prefer whittling to padding. I think. I'd rather have something on the page to pare away than try to shoehorn a new subplot or some enriching description into existing text (and you know, either way, you're going to introduce some bloopers which will come back to embarrass you). But cutting is still painful. A writer puts the words on the page for a reason. You're building characters; you're making a place come alive with sensory details; you're planting subtle clues. You love each and every word, because they're all yours and you strung them together. But at the same time, you can hear your editor's voice (Note: I love my editor–she knows what she's doing, and she invariably makes my books better) saying, "what is the point of this section?" "Why do we need this?" And worse, "you've said this before–can't you take one or the other out?" The immature part of you says, "no, I don't wanna. I like those words/paragraph/subplot." You can dress it up and tell the editor things like, "I was expounding on the protagonist's issues with forming close relationships with other people based on her dysfunctional relationship with her father." And the editor's appropriate response to all your blustering should be, "but does it advance the story?"' And often the answer is "no." So I had to cut a whole lot of words out of my story. It hurts, no question. The first part to go was the "romance" aspect–the potential relationship with the law enforcement official (okay, it's cliche, but...). Take out all the drooling over his broad shoulders, all the enigmatic glances (does he? should I?). Take out a few juicy scenes, or tone them down. Still too long. Then there were the chunks I label "look at how much I know!" This series is about museums, and I've worked in several. Unfortunately I have a tendency to show off my arcane knowledge. Some of this insider information might interest people who really want to know what goes on behind the scenes, so some of it stays. But not all of it. Stop showing off, Sheila. Slash, chop. And then there are the lovely chunks of "thinking." My protagonists actually stop and think about what's going on, most often about how they're supposed to solve the murder. Thinking is good–now and then. But thinking falls under the dreaded "show, don't tell" umbrella, and it's kind of cheating, when you periodically review the evidence for the readers. Out comes the red pen again, axing entire paragraphs of thinking. This doesn't mean that I don't ever get to add anything. Even in the best of times, I will stumble over a sentence I wrote and say, "what the heck did I mean by that?" And I also have a tendency to assume I've said something, but when I look for it it's not there. Maybe whatever I was trying to say was obvious to me, immersed in the book, but it's not going to be clear to a new reader. So that's what I've been doing for weeks now–taking a machete to my deathless prose. Pretty words? Bah! Throw them overboard. Longing glances? Not in my mystery! As of yesterday, my bloated 102,000-word book was down to a lean 90,000 words and change, and I've got one more pass to...
The Gift That's The Right Size For Everyone We were talking at our annual book group holiday lunch yesterday about getting gifts for our children. Everyone, it seems, is cutting back again this year. And once again, some of the impetus for change is coming from children who are greener and leaner and less interested in filling up their lives with possessions. I expressed some regret at not getting to buy my boys things, because it really is the only time in the year when I do give them presents. But like the other ladies, I am very happy not to have to do a lot of shopping, schlepping, and wrapping. I don't much like stores. Malls give me a headache. I'm cranky about having to navigate around a gazillion careless people parked in front of the product I need, chatting heedlessly on cell phones while blocking the progress of a dozen of us with other demands on our time. I'm already anticipatorily cranky about the mountains of sugar that lie between me and January 1st. I find it hard to imagine putting up a wreath when I've still got a few brave flowers blooming in the garden. But I'm dealing with this minor case of the holiday grouchies, and with a number of people who will need some wrapped gift under the tree, by doing my shopping at the one set of stores that make me smile instead of frown: Bookstores. Luckily, my family and friends are bookworms, so I can go from store to store with my loved ones in mind, and chat up the bookloving staff. "What's new? What's good? What are your customers falling in love with?" In a great bookstore, like Water Street, in Exeter, New Hampshire (where I recently did a Quarry event with Frank Cook, JE Seymour and Norma Burrows, pictured here) or Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., my questions draw enthusiastic suggestions. The booksellers will pluck books off the shelf and give me quick descriptions. This post-apocalyptic one, for the physics guy, is called young adult but all the adults who read it are blown away. Perhaps Nick Hornby for the film maker? A new Julia Glass for the relative who loved Three Junes. Can any Ishiguro ever compare with The Remains of the Day? I chat. I collect a pile of books. I begin to make my own holiday wish list. I spend my life in the world of books. I eat, sleep, love, and breathe books. When I die, it will probably be because I'm crushed by the toppling cascade of my TBR pile. Last year the only book I got for Christmas was a cookbook. This year, I'm making a wishlist and hope they're checking it twice. I'm buying all these books because I love books, of course. I'm also buying all these books to set a good example for the rest of you. Because I know that not all readers understand the importance of book buying to authors. Several years ago, I did a library event with a few other authors, and we all brought along copies of our books to sell. At the end, when we authors were circulating, and drinking punch, and eating cream cheese brownies, two women came up to me, declared themselves to be great fans of mine, and said, "But we've been having a terrible time finding your first book." I pulled a copy out of my bag and said, "'re in luck, because I have a copy right here." They backed up a few steps and one of them said, "Oh, we don't BUY books." I realized then that there's an educational component to being a writer--and I'm not talking about teaching writing. I'm talking about teaching readers to buy. I know we're all being careful about our finances these days. I also know that writers live and die by our book sales. Sales are good, the publisher will want to buy another book from us. Sales are poor, the publisher goes looking for a promising new author. Paperbacks cost little more than a few cups of Starbucks coffee. Trade paperbacks cost as much as a couple pairs of panties, and the elastic doesn't give out. A hardcover book can last a lifetime, be read by dozens of people, or you can enjoy it and then give it to your library, take a charitable deduction, and give pleasure to many. When I graduated from high school, valedictorian of a class of about 26, our motto was: In Ourselves Our Future Lies. For writers, that also properly reads: In Yourselves Our Future Lies. I hope I'll see you at the bookstore. P.S. Our book group is also creating our own small buzz (and cluck) with bees and chicks from Heifer, International.

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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