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The International Writers Magazine:Writing Fiction

On Editing a Novel
Sam Hawksmoor
I just took a day off to read IQ84 Haruki Murakami’s new novel - all 623 pages   (Well - Parts One and Two at least).  I’m a writer.  I can take the day off to read a book.  I think there’s a law somewhere that says that a writer has to take at least one day off a month to read someone else’s book.  (If not there should be).


The Murakami novel was terrific. A real return to form and very much like a harder edged 'Hardboiled Wonderland at the Edge of the World' - one of my all time favourite novels. More later on that when I can actually think straight.

I have just come off a hard week editing.  Let me explain. My editor asked me politely if I could lose 10 to 15,000 words from a novel for an international edition.  Say it slowly, ten to fifteen thousand words.  It seems translation costs are high and if I could get the page count down … you get the picture.

OK, you aren’t going to say no – not if you want your book to be a success and the choice is either I do it or the editor.  My pal Carine says it is rather like being asked to choose whether to cut off your toes or fingers.  I’d say it isn’t quite as drastic as that.  I recall when I was a kid someone used to give our family a subscription to the Readers Digest ‘abridged’ popular novels of the day and once when ill I read one and then some years later read the whole book – it is hard to say what was missed exactly but perhaps character development, the moments when a character might contemplate their next move over a cup of tea or that brief moment when they saw someone from on top of their bus, arm in arm with another, and it breaks their heart and everyone can see her crying and she can’t stop.  (Yes that scene was cut).  I never read any others and always felt it was wrong that abridged novels existed at all.
Every time you go to see a movie based on a novel – you are strongly aware of what is missing.  (Except in a Harry Potter movie when it might be a blessing).
Nuances, pauses, reactions, mistaken moments and interludes can all be dispensed with.  Boy meets girl, beds, leaves, fini.  Boy meets girl, girl realises that she has made a mistake and has a long talk with best friend on how to get out of the relationship…  Well that’s one conversation you could cut right?
So I approached my own cutting with alacrity, but not without some professional interest.  After all I have been teaching for twenty odd years and enabling others to cut their work whilst retaining the sense of it has been one of the things I have had to do.  I already knew after reading Chapter One aloud to a small group that I could excise a few paragraphs that were just an aside and could be lost without harm.  Each chapter of any book is full of some asides or such little moments.  In teaching screenwriting you are always asking yourself  - does this drive the narrative forward.  A script is like a shark, always seeking its next feed and nothing else matters.  But wait, part of the pleasure of reading a novel is just those precious little moments when you stop to smell the roses.  (A warning I did this once – had the worst attack of hay fever of my life and the girl in question walked off in disgust never to be heard from again).
Gee – see that was an aside and it reveals quite a lot.  One: I have hay fever. Two: was on a first date with a gorgeous girl. Three: she had zero sympathy for someone with hay fever and Four: I guess I was lucky to have found this out rather early).

So – rather like Greek debts, be careful what you cut as it may kill the patient.
I began cautiously, but soon realised that I was NEVER going to find 15,000 words unless I was absolutely going to be ruthless.  I took a walk, had a coffee, had a think about it.  Some whole short chapters did not drive the narrative forward but did deepen the characters.  But where these the main characters?  Could I lose some of things they did and retain their integrity.  If I cut this, it meant that no one could refer it later and that too would have to be cut.  Pruning is an art.  You want the tree to live yet whole branches had to go.  By day three, when I read from the beginning again I realised that I could be much braver.  You realise that in this version of the book it would run faster that’s all.  The little things might be lost but the reader would get to the chase faster.  One can still leave in the small moments that I regard as essential – however trivial that might seem in isolation – but even here, a paragraph here, an explanation there, they can go, because the reader has imagination too, he or she can make connections without you having to tell them how or why.  I now know why I prefer Indie movies to mainstream - it's because they give themselves the luxury of 'asides'. Of course I wish I had done this 'after' I had read Murakami's novel because his work is stuffed full of characters cooking, peeling, standing and thinking, thinking about sex, catching taxis stuck in traffic and many, many moments when nothing happens and a character refuses to speak. In other words - just like real life and wait - I just had to cut all that stuff out!. Grrr. (To be honest I left some in because it just wouldn't be a novel by me if they didn't make coffee and meals. I hate stories where no one ever has time to eat or shower or think). Pace versus humanity I guess.
I confess at 11,000 words I had to stop.  At some point you realise that wait – isn’t the whole novel an aside?  I was growing word blind and in danger of cutting the heads of topiary chickens. (Not that there is any topiary in the novel -  but you know what I mean).
I surrendered – hoped what I sent back in was enough.

Did I learn anything?  Yes actually – when it comes to the edit of my next book – I will have to be much more disciplined so that they don’t feel that anything needs cutting at all. 
© Sam Hawksmoor November 1st 2011

My new YA novel 'The Repossession' comes out on March 1st 2012.  (Yes you can pre-order it now – every order helps give them confidence to promote it).

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