Thursday, 22 April 2010

The art of drastic editing

I submitted a piece to an anthology today that I wrote almost ten years ago. It was about my time as a Reuters reporter at Kumbh Mela, a massive Hindu pilgrimage that attracted 70 million people. I wrote a book proposal about that experience that was my first real introduction to the trials an unknown writer. Everyone said it was beautifully written--from my writers group to my agent to the thirty publishers that rejected it. It remains unpublished to this day.

The chapter I chose to submit fit the subject of the anthology perfectly. There was only one problem--my chapter was 9,000 words and the maximum length for submissions was 3,000.

Time to cut.

I'm used to cutting, because I tend to overwrite in early drafts. The problem was, this wasn't an early draft, and I had to cut by two-thirds. The first thing I did was delete any scene that didn't directly relate to the subject of the anthology. That got me down to 6,000 words. Then I cut out some of the more florid description, made many word pairs into contractions, deleted any details that didn't move forward the core point, and got down to 3,600 words.

I was almost there, except that all this hacking and slashing had left the scenes without context. I needed to explain what Kumbh Mela was and who sadhus (Hindu holy men) were. The bridging paragraphs didn't take up too much space but I was still left with almost 25% of the text needing to be cut, and it was all "deathless prose" I wanted to leave intact.

Too bad. No prose is deathless. I began to get ruthless. not every beautiful description could remain. Not every insight into Indian culture needed to be communicated. Out went sentences and entire paragraphs, and early this morning I got it to within the limit. So I sent it off, all 2,994 words of it!

Just goes to show that your prose, no matter how precious, can always be changed.

Machete photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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