Philosophy of Writing – 10 – Wordcount

Posted on April 12, 2012 by


Half of Less Than Ten III by Amanda Nedham

Half of Less Than Ten III, 2012
Graphite on watercolour paper
22″” x 30″”

Most authors should cut. They embed tiny fragments of complex, fragrant chocolate into warm bread dough so sparsely they can barely be tasted–then draw a line through the points with a butter knife to emphasise their effort. Here! Look! Here are the good bits.

I meticulously fashion a mask of silver thread and beaten gold, jewels that shine like stars–and I leave half the stones out, don’t bother making a strap or handle, throw it onto the workbench and declare it done. Put it on if you want. I’ve given it up. You only have to imagine the bits that are missing.

The ugly, hulking shadow you see over my shoulder is that thing I can’t really help you with. I have some desperate tricks that I’ll share, but as I write this series I realise with growing dread–I can’t help you structure your novel. I can’t help you overflow with words that spill joyously over the page and become a manuscript that is unpolished and exuberant and comforting, like warming bread about to go in the oven.

My greatest failing as a writer, says my mother, is that I’ve always had trouble with the end. I sometimes don’t have this problem with short stories because the ending is part of the development; there’s no need to deliver a smooth fade-out or a flourish-and-bow.

I’ll tell you what happens: I wring my hands. I sit there, and I worry my hands, finger by finger, and I wonder what I can design that will form this feeling of satisfaction or completeness in you. I can tie all the strings together but for some reason the whole project is weighted strangely and its shape isn’t pleasing as a whole, as you tell me, too many gaps, too much off-screen? I use mixed metaphors here because I don’t know what you’re missing, exactly, just that it’s wrong to you and I’m groping around for a good way to see my writing that isn’t very very close up.

Where is objectivity and how do I get there?

At any rate, this means I have a rich, complex piece that folds and winds about itself but doesn’t have enough material, and my test readers will ask me to write more, and then I do. Hurrah for more! I like writing more.

This is the first time I’ve ever been confronted with the concept of industry norms in a way that actually means the industry finger is coming out of the sky and pointing at my personal desk in a way that means This industry norm you know about so well? It applies to you.

So! Wordcount. I have to write more and then I have to make it less.

I can’t cut with abandon because I spare words in the writing of them. It would be vain and untrue to say that my manuscript needs no cutting–but every cut obvious to me has already been done. It creates some extra anguish (I’m not digging up my pretty pebbles; I’m discarding a few that look exactly the same to me as all the others).

But you have plenty of room to cut, because overwhelmingly your task when editing will be to “make it less”. That’s the way the book was written: a strong structure with plenty of room. My advice to you is to rejoice in your happy position. Enjoy bringing the fine detail out of your rough draft. Perhaps I should change allegories here: imagine that your manuscript is a piece of stone. You have the face, the body, the concept, the form that beckons and fascinates. You have a promise of such grand and beautiful things–pick up a square of sandpaper and be buoyed by your good fortune.