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by Kevin Desinger, Author of The Descent of Man
I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead. —Twain
When my agent Gail agreed to represent my manuscript, she said there was a rule of thumb that such books shouldn’t be longer than three hundred pages. At the time mine was that plus one, and—this being my first published novel—I assumed we were almost there. Alas, we were not almost there. In the next nine months she and I each reread the entire manuscript three times and removed seventeen pages of clutter.
Fortunately for me, the first round of cuts dealt primarily with what I think of as scaffolding: material needed (by this writer, at least) to construct a first draft. I can’t know until later drafts whether this or that scene or character will matter, so it or he or she remains and gets developed and polished along with the rest. And now, after years of working alone, I had someone basically reaching past me to point at a paragraph and say, “Why is that there?” If I hadn’t seen it as scaffolding, some of those early phone sessions may have grown a little warm.
One afternoon, after a half hour of rewording and tightening, Gail said, “You’re going to kill me for this,” and suggested cutting a full page of dialogue on which I had used everything from massage oil to a spike maul to make it just right. I loved that exchange, but to her it was nothing more than an aside. She had been unerring on her other edits so, stifling a mix of defensiveness and heartbreak, I selected the whole thing and dragged it into a separate file, which I titled “Cut,” and tapped the save button on my keyboard. Without working up a transition, and keeping in mind that I could always put things back the way they were, I reread the chapter. I didn’t miss the conversation in the slightest. It was almost disappointing.
Later, I realized that all the time we were on the phone I had been waiting for her to target those lines, was just beginning to think that I would get away with keeping them when she said, “And one last thing…” I’m sure that part of my attachment came from having worked so hard on them. And part of why I had worked so hard was because they had always seemed somewhat extraneous.
This became a model for the rest of my work with her, and later with Greg, co-publisher at Unbridled Books: before wasting energy over the sense behind an edit, I dragged the material in question into my Cut file, saw that the sentences leading into and away from the removal were contiguous, and reread the section. If I didn’t notice a difference, I simply moved on.
My Cut file grew.
Publishing a novel has been likened to sending a child into the world. It’s time for you to let go now, time for it to begin life away from you, the creator, you who put so much time and effort—so much of yourself—into helping it become what it is. Eventually, you hope to hear that it is doing well.
For me any real sense of this didn’t sink in until after Gail decided it was time to send it around. Greg made an offer, we accepted, and he became my second editor. Because Gail and I had worked so meticulously—questioning the existence of each word, it seemed—once again I thought we were almost there, that with a few tweaks it would be ready. Wrong again. Now working under the deadline of a release date, in the following three months we reread the manuscript another three times and cut another seventeen pages.
We were two phone conversations into the process when I realized that we were no longer working on my novel (and here I felt a brief panic); we were working on our novel. I stopped in the middle of whatever I was saying and let the information penetrate. I wonder now if Greg can sense this as it happens, when the first-time novelist suddenly realizes that the once privately owned piece of writing has become community property.
Toward the end of the process, as we were ironing out the tiny details, I apologized for missing some pretty obvious errors. (How many times can I look at “I was just working on it just now,” and not see the repetition?) Greg said, “Well, you must be snow blind!” Indeed, I was staring into a blizzard of meaningless words. With the deadline looming, I completed the final adjustments and gave a parent’s sigh.
Now that the book has been published the Cut file is no longer active. Along with other files created around that time, it is tucked into a folder whose title I don’t recall. For the sake of this essay I considered looking, but it’s more true to my effort here to shrug it off. I imagine if I were to try reading through all those sentences and paragraphs, I would wonder why any of it ever mattered to me. I won’t, though, not even out of curiosity. I have no interest in opening the door to that dusty room.
Read our review of The Descent of Man; http://wp.me/p2DwkQ-7L2
Kevin Desinger graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop before moving to Portland, where he wrote for the Willamette Week, the Oregonian and a number of regional publications. An earlier short story appeared in The Missouri Review. This is his first novel.
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