Too many words

[January 2009] There’s a scene in Amadeus where Mozart has just finished playing one of his new compositions for Emperor Joseph II. After a few generalities (“ingenious,” “quality work”), the Emperor concludes (at the prompting of Mozart’s nemesis Salieri), “There are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

The movie version of Mozart, who has the benefit of a good script to feed him a comeback, retorts, “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

Several years ago I wrote a short story for a themed anthology. Although the editor expressed an early inclination toward accepting my story, the anthology (it may surprise you to hear) failed to materialize. I submitted the story to a few markets in the aftermath of that implosion, but never reread it or paid much attention to it. One editor, bless his soul, took the time to write a lengthy critique, almost two full pages. He saw a lot of good in the story, but felt that it needed major work. I filed the story and the critique away without taking further action.

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to a broadly themed anthology. For some reason, that story came to mind. However, when I perused the invitation and brought up the story document, I saw a problem. The guidelines specified “no more than 4000 words” and the story’s word count was 6200. Ah, well, I thought. I’ll just have to write something new.

A day or so later, I was struck out of the blue by a question. Why was that story so long? That’s a pretty beefy tale and the plot, as I remembered it, wasn’t all that complex or involved. The entire story takes place over the span of an hour or so. I brought up the document again, wondering if I might be able to trim it back a little. That seemed a tad optimistic—after all, 2200 words represented 35% of the story’s total length. If I could just get it back to 5000 words or so, I rationalized, maybe the editor would consider it despite its length. (We all know that guidelines are meant for everyone else, never for us!)

I didn’t get very far into the text before realizing that there was a lot of extraneous material. The tale barely got started before I was sidetracked by a lengthy “essay” about the nature of the protagonist. All very valuable insight for me as the writer, but overkill in terms of the story. It was so bad that at the end of that diversion I had a space break to remind me it was time to get back to the plot.

Instead of a scalpel, I wielded a machete. The floor around my computer became littered with excised text. Adjectives, sentences, paragraphs, huge swaths of pages all went. Some of the writing was very precious. I remember writing those gleaming passages, but with several years of distance I found I was able to trim them with only slight twinges of regret.

By the end of my first pass, I was down to 4600 words. Well, then, I thought. Close, but no cigar. I told myself, “Self, it’s going to be very difficult to trim much more than that.”

Two days later, I took another whack at it, after rereading the critique from the helpful editor who had had enough faith in the core concept of the story to send me such detailed notes. As of this writing, I’m only halfway through the second revision, and the word count is at 3600. I’m sure that more will be cut before I tackle the next phase, which will be a procedure akin to plastic surgery to repair the grievous wounds I’ve inflicted on the prose. My machete left gashes and gaping holes. Coarse sutures are holding paragraphs together. My scalpel will come into play to trim, shape and mold, to remove the scars and join the text back together seamlessly, I hope.

Okay, I think I’ve stretched the medical metaphor as far as it will go. When I’m finished with the story, it will probably have crept back up a little, perhaps verging on 4000 words again, but whatever I add (post-op, so to speak) will be subtleties and nuance that give the story depth and—I hope—impact. No more blather.

Is there a take-home message? So often I’m not sure when I start writing one of these essays. It’s a vignette from my writing life. Take from it what you will. I had this lumbering story occupying my hard drive that was so bloated (too many words) that I couldn’t find many places to send it. With a little distance, I saw the skinnier, zippier, edgier story hiding inside and I hope that I’m managing to tease it out.

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