The next time you sit down with your book manuscript think of yourself as a sculptor.
Michelangelo once said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it’s the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Manuscripts are often a lot like that.
First drafts contain a lot that needs to be chipped away to get down to the book's essence. Too often writers try to cram far more into their manuscript than one good book can possibly contain. Whether you decided to include all events great and small in your memoir, every ancestral line in your multigenerational family history, or to make sure that your novel provides a full back story for every character, no matter how minor, you’ll face the same problem. Take a hammer and chisel to that huge block of granite you have produced. Good writing is chopping away what is not essential.
The great novelist Thomas Wolfe once said, “What I had to face, the very bitter lesson that everyone who wants to write has got to learn, was that a thing may in itself be the finest piece of writing one has ever done, and yet have absolutely no place in the manuscript one hopes to publish.”
Wolfe was a man who spoke from bitter experience. When he sent the manuscript of O Lost to editor Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, it was 330,000 words typed on 1,114 onion skin pages. What followed is wonderfully described in A. Scott Berg’s biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.
After his initial meetings with Perkins, Wolfe wrote in his journal that he would, ‘…cut out of every page every word that is not essential to the meaning of the writing.” That was a real challenge with Wolfe’s huge cast of characters in this autobiographical work. He embraced it. “Four pages about Wolfe’s mother’s brother…were reduced to ‘Henry, the oldest was now thirty.’” The process was difficult. Wolfe once told poet and editor John Hall Wheelock, "At times getting this book in shape seems to me like putting corsets on an elephant.”
When it was published, as Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward Angel, it was 90,000 words shorter than the draft. The book became an American classic.
What is important to realize is that the manuscript may have benefitted from those elements that were cut away, even though they did not appear the published book.“There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning," said Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate and author of 57 books including Night, “and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don’t see them.”