If your goal is to jettison approximately a thousand – give or take a few hundred – pages of your own written words, I recommend making the solemn and irrevocable decision to write a novel. Whether your genre is science fiction, historical fiction, crime fiction, or that ethereal mess called literary fiction, I think this is a good first step. It may be possible to achieve this same extravagance of waylaid words writing a graduate thesis or technical manual, but thankfully I have no experience in those realms so I will confine my advice to something I have written, a novel.
Secondly, begin to write. Begin where it seems to begin in your heart. That may be with plot, or with character, or perhaps with a flowery and overly wrought scene-setting exercise. It may be that you start with (what you think is) an especially brilliant snippet of dialogue or (what seems at the time to be) a dynamic sequence that should lock any reader into your book. Begin not with fear, not with trepidation, but with hubris. Do not spare even one nanosecond, not even a picosecond, worrying about whether or not you have started at the correct place. Why worry? You will almost surely discard this writing. Hey, if you want to ditch a thousand pages of writing, you have to start somewhere.
Thirdly, continue to write. Hubris! Hubris! Hubris!
For now.Let the drafting of your oeuvre proceed in the mostly wildly abandoned manner, a lascivious embrace with language. Tap! Tap! Tap! Scrawl away! Allow the dreams to proceed into ink, the visions to concretize themselves in kilobytes, the hyperboles to hyperbolize. Give your characters free rein to express their most dramatic impulses, connive and inscribe the most intricate possible circuitous plots twists (Aha, reader! Gotcha again!), use adverbs in order to give greater velocity to the sorry little verbs, allow metaphors to carry your brilliance aloft like gilded chariots of prose, never fear the adjective because when you are writing something of such force and vigor it should not lack for descriptors, allow bantering repetitive dialogue to be accentuated with the force of pauses and deep sighs that are clearly signaled in the text or by lengthy interstitial (or something that approximates it) passages that describe the speakers’ fluctuations of breathing or perhaps their lips’ trembling, or their tortured gazes, the delicate shuffling of their feet, and (oh by the way) eschew conventions of grammar and writing – for example – allowing yourself to indulge in ridiculous run-on sentences that could not be tolerated in a writer of lesser merit.
After all, you must produce the thousand pages if you wish to burn them.
What do you have? A good start.
Going forward, we will not number the steps.
That is because the next thing is to edit, within which there are too many things to do to be numbered. One day, when you have successfully shredded your thousand pages and published the gist (mistype this as ‘gift’ if it makes you feel better) you will at some point be asked by a writer who is at the very start of the road,
“Do you edit very much? Or does it just flow out?”
If you happen to have just written a novel called, ‘The Headmaster’s Wager’, this question will make you want to laugh out loud at its sheer ridiculousness. You will restrain a scream at the invisibility of the work that you have made disappear in order to leave only the essence for public consumption – hoping that force of effort you have made it read as if . You will rejoice because it was the best and most important part of the work. Of course, I wrote that book, and you will write a different one, and so your reaction might be different.
Whatever your specific psychic reaction, if your tome has been published, I suspect your spoken reply will be something like,
“Yes. I do edit. It’s very important.”
But what does this have to do with losing the thousand pages?
Aha! Here we go.
Read what you have written as if you were a naïve reader, not its writer. If you don’t like it as a reader, it goes. If it seems to wander to you: the reader, it needs a big red diagonal line. As much as you love the story and carry it with the implicit first person of the writer, read and edit it harshly, with the great distance of the third person reader. There must be fifty pages slashed in that first go with the red pen.
You are just beginning, so get a few extra pens. Hone in. Look for any scenes that do not serve the story, and strike them out. This may be whole pages, tens of pages, even chapters. Kill them with bravery. Try not to dwell on the weeks or months it took you to write them. Be on the lookout for descriptions of places that are static rather than dynamic, which may be born solely out of your love for a particular setting, and should die there. Do they move? Do they serve? Are they needed? Integrate the descriptions. Make the reader’s mental eye run over them like a film. If this cannot be done, run a line through them. Be observant for text in which you have expressed the same thing about a scene or an encounter several times in several ways. Find the strongest one, and cut the rest out. Be wary of history. You may find historical circumstances to be fascinating, and wish to share them with your reader out of a spirit of generosity. Also, you may be trying to show off your knowledge, just a little bit. In each instance of history-as-mentioned-in-text, ask yourself if it serves the story being told. If not, nix it. If you are a novelist, leave the history to historians. (Come on! They, too are struggling to weed out their own thousand pages! Leave them their turf!)
Phew, that’s at least a hundred more pages in the dustbin.
For an encore, stare at the adjectives and ask if they are really necessary. Many are not. Berate the adverbs and ask yourself if they are truly welcome. Most are not. Consider the metaphors – do they serve or do they distract? The ones you love most may stick out like sore thumbs in your text. Also, beware of clichés. Respect grammar. Almost always.
Do all that you can do yourself. Then get an editor. Before you show them your stuff, tell them,
“Don’t hold back. Don’t spare me.”
After all, you want the best of their work, don’t you? If your editor makes a mark on the manuscript that you don’t understand or agree with, don’t waste time and dignity trying to defend what you have there. This is what leads writers to grumble that their editor doesn’t understand them, and editors to grumble that their writer doesn’t listen to their advice. Instead, speak with the editor and try to understand why they made that mark. Once you understand the basis of the question, you can decide what to do with it. You still have to make the call, as you are the writer. Meanwhile, challenge yourself to ask new questions of your work arising from the questions that the editor makes. Push yourself to edit more vigorously than your vigorous editor. Cheer the editor on, cry out loud to them,
“Mark more heavily! Be hard!”
There’s another hundred gone.
View the editorial process as a springboard from which you should be even tougher on your own work than your editor could possibly manage. Your editor is your coach, and you don’t want your coach to be easy on you, do you? Meanwhile, even with the best coach, it is the athlete who must push themself.
But you’re just getting up so speed if you want to leave a thousand in the gutter. You could try a few of the fine tricks that I employed in the writing of ‘The Headmaster’s Wager’. You could write the entire novel in third person, and then decide that it should really be in first person. You could then re-write it in first person (despite the cautionary notes sounded by your editor – which yes, you should digest, and yes, you must decide whether to heed or ignore) over a space of many months. Then, you could decide that your editor was right after all (this often happens). You could decide that, in fact, it should be written in limited third person. However, because you have changed many aspects of the plot, you would realize that you could not revert to the previous draft, but must re-write the entire book again in limited third person. As a mere diversionary activity, you could decide at some point that all of this conventional perspective stuff is inadequate. You could embark upon the exercise of writing the novel from four separate voices, each with a present day perspective and a past perspective. In effect, you could try to write it in eight voices. This, you might soon realize, is a horrific disaster and has to be entirely chucked along with the initial third person version, and the first person version. Now you’re getting near a thousand in the recycle bin. See? All these options are available to you. I know they are. I’ve pursued them.
Through all of this, there may come a time when the throwing-away of stuff slows down. The story begins to exert itself upon you, rather than you forcing yourself upon it. At some juncture, you may find that you are occupying yourself more with reworking what is on the page rather than crossing it out. The characters begin to answer your questions, and the dictates of their personalities begin to address your problems as you continue to edit. Of course, much of this is still discarding, but at a finer level. You will rework a chapter so that it ends up being ten pages rather than twelve. You will massage the flow of a paragraph so that it becomes four sentences rather than six. Lengthy sentences will be made short. Dialogue will be written more crisply. Here, the pages you lose are measured in single digits rather than double, and the words that are being expunged are being squeezed like water from a sponge rather than sluiced out with a bucket.
You will go for coffee or noodles with your editor. The two of you will talk about the world of your book as if it were real. You will have begun to live in that world, and the writing has assumed the role of simply expressing the world you now inhabit.
What you have thrown away has been done to allow the story to work, to move, to shine. With each successive round of editing – you will slice away less and less. The excision of whole chapters has given way to the delicate pruning of pages. The pruning of pages becomes the minute trimming of paragraphs. By the time you get to copy-editing and proofreading, you will be shaving delicately, polishing contours. The thing will feel harder, more solid, and free of waste. By the end, there is not much left to cut, and you are sad to let it go. You have become so accustomed to the presence of your fictional world, that you no longer mourn the now-distant loss of a thousand or so pages. Instead, as you read the last proofs, you mourn the impending loss of your engagement with the book. The lost thousand pages are nothing, merely part of the route to the world of your books. Besides, in compensation, you are left with a novel.
Dr. Lam's first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and has recently been adapted for television and broadcast on HBO Canada. Dr. Lam co-authored The Flu Pandemic And You, a non-fiction guide to influenza pandemics.The Headmaster's Wager, Dr. Lam's first novel, about a Chinese compulsive gambler and headmaster of an English school in Saigon during the Vietnam War, is published by Doubleday Canada. Dr. Lam's biography of Tommy Douglas is published by Penguin Canada as part of Extraordinary Canadians series.
For more, visit Vincent Lam’s website.