I have been accused of circumlocution virtually since the day I started speaking. If you flip through the pages of my life and stop at almost any day, you’ll find a conversation like this one going on:
Random Teen from the Past: Karen and I are going to a party tonight. Wanna come?
Other Friend: I might as well … I’m only going to have to hear all the stories about it later, and it will take less of my time I just go along now.
Karen: Well, you know, I could just take an umbrella … it probably won’t rain but I’m thinking that at least if I have one with me, then if it rains I’ll be dry, as opposed to NOT carrying it around and then being caught in the rain, WISHING I’d carried it around and thinking the whole time that if only I’d taken the umbrella I’d have a much better chance of being dry. I mean, ultimately I’d much rather do something and be on the safe side, than NOT do something and run the risk of being really upset by it later …”
Random 20something Friend From the Past: OR, “Better safe than sorry …”
What can I say? I like to talk.
Nothing proved my circumlocution-ness more, however, than recently when I was putting the final touches on my Great American Novel. After thinking it was finished around 14 years ago I sent it out to literary agents with high hopes, only to get one rejection letter after another. After another. After another. (Repeat this phrase another 243 times …) It got so I wasn’t able to open my mailbox anymore without seeing the dreaded flurry of little SASEs tumbling toward me, all rejection letters from Agent X telling me they just didn’t think my big book o’ words was marketable. I put the manuscript away in a drawer and tried to forget about it. All 145,000 words of it.
To be clear: word count in the publishing world is like dress size in the modeling world. Same equation: lower number equals more marketable. Things would have started differently for JK Rowlings if Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone hadn’t skootched by at just under 80,000 words — 76,944 to be exact. Only when the crowd was clamoring for more could she (and her publishing house) feel confident about something that weighed in at 198,227 words (as The Deathly Hallows did). Agents balk at hefty books the way Janice Dickinson balks at hefty models. As in: Good ones exist, they just don’t get through the machine as easily.
Years later I decided to give it another shot. I took my “finished” novel and presented it to my writing group. One hearty soul, the one man in the group, took the time to read the whole thing. His criticism was harsh, but fair … great story, not so great writing. (Hey, I’d accused Stephen King of this my whole life … ). It was salvageable, he said, it just had to be completely rewritten and heavily edited.
I decided to try one more time. After all … 14 years HAD gone by … my writing had gotten better … and I wasn’t in such desperate need to prove how smart I was anymore. I cut out pages and pages of characters having long, boring existential conversations that did nothing to move the plot forward. I tightened, punched up and textured until one day last month, like a Sculptor, I knew it was finished because there was nothing else to take away.
It now weighs in at a very slimming 110,000 words. That’s THIRTY FIVE THOUSAND NON-ESSENTIAL WORDS … gone. And never missed. Amazing.
So, the question is, after all that — is it a good book? I’ve had a few friends read it (or parts of it) over the years, and always got relatively good feedback. That’s what friends do … they cheerleader their way through your small successes. It’s hard to know. There’s one reader, though, who I choose to believe over all the others. Random Subway Chick.
Years ago, I’d given a first draft to my dad and he read it on his daily commute. One day, without him knowing it, a girl had been reading over his shoulder. When he put it away she tapped his arm … “Excuse me,” she said, “What’s that your reading?”
Dad: It’s a novel my daughter’s written.
Random Subway Chick: Wow! Is it published? I’d love to buy it! I’ve been reading it over your shoulder and I can’t wait to see what happens next!
I think about Random Subway Chick a lot. Because New York is FILLED with random subway chicks … and they’re my target audience. Along with any other person who’s facing a long train ride, bus ride, plane ride, and wants to dig their teeth into a good story that will make the commute fly by. As well as any person who likes to stay up late into the night reading just one more chapter … And any person who’s not looking for a cookie cutter story with a happy ending. So … if that’s you … stay tuned. I promise, you’ll enjoy every single word.