The Business of Cutting

I finished the first draft of a screenplay a few days ago. And I have just finished cutting it down to an acceptable length… the rule being one page of script equals one minute of screen time. So if you are insane enough to deliver a 240 page script (this one was 130 pages – and will come down to around 110 pages in the next draft) you’ve written ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

There’s always something rather wonderful about crossing the finish line on a project. With a novel – which can be up to two years of work on the first draft (as it was for ‘The Moment’ and ‘Leaving the World’) – there is always the sense of exhilaration and exhaustion and loss that accompanies the final sentence… along with the realization that, several weeks from now (and I always try to take a break of several weeks between the completion of the novel and start of the editing process), I will have to read the first draft and discover what works and what needs reshaping. That’s the thing about my first drafts: they are what I inelegantly call ‘the vomit draft’, in which everything gets thrown on to the page and there is a massive amount of over-writing. These drafts are largely for my eyes only – I never show them to one of my editors – and I try to be ruthless when it comes to cutting them. ‘The Moment’   started as a 1067 page manuscript. After several weeks of editing I trimmed it down to 880 pages and then submitted it to my editors in New York, London and Paris (my French editor reads English, but we work together in her language). This is, for me, perhaps the most difficult part of the process – because, of course, I am now inviting the opinion of others (in this case, three very brilliant editors) on my work. And I always know they will be casting a critical eye on the work – because that is what they are there for. And the fact that I am getting three different sets of notes about the novel never throws me – because what I am looking for is the places where all three editors have the same point of view about something that doesn’t work, and can also show me where improvements can be made.

With ‘The Moment’ the 88o page submission drafts came down to 711 pages during two further drafts – and it was, as always, me who did all the cutting. Of course all novelists are profoundly atypical. There are certain writers who will never allow an editor to change a word (they usually end up having short careers). There are those who send their editor each chapter as it is written. And there are those who allow the editor to make the cuts, aid with the rewrites, and act as a creative doppelganger. In my case, I look to my editors to be come to the manuscript with a fresh eye, and to see what works and what doesn’t. Then it’s over to me to put it right. Sometime I will simply say no to a suggestion – if I feel it runs contrary to what I am trying to do with the novel, or simply isn’t something I can live with. But a great editor is the best ally a novelist can have . They may administer the literary version of tough love – but as they are on your side, and really do want the novel to work, attention needs to be paid to what they are saying.

And if there is one great rule of writing I have learned after ten novels and three ‘recit du voyage’ and several screenplays  it’s this: you can always cut some more.

  • Bobbi Rice

    Of the thousands of books I’ve read in my lifetime, yours are never too long nor have you written enough of them to assuage my appetite for your work.

  • Maggie Roche

    I wsh ‘The Moment’ had lasted 2000 pages. It still would have ended too soon.