Slate Magazine has a series I recommend called the Slate Book Review author-editor conversation. I particularly enjoyed the conversations between Meg Wolitzer and Sarah McGrath and between Claire Messud and Robin Desser.
The most recent installment features Joshua Ferris and Reagan Arthur. In the conversation Ferris talks about the fact that he cut 200 pages from his most recent novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Great title, right?
He first started this novel back in 2004, worked on it for a year but it wasn’t coming together. He put it aside and wrote a different book and then went back to it in 2010. So he worked on it “probably four years stitched together, but 10 by the calendar.”
Back to the tossing of 200 pages and Ferris’s process.
There were at least a dozen characters who got the full treatment in earlier drafts… [T]hese were archetypal characters to some extent, bit characters playing by the rules of what was then a detective novel called The Third Bishop… I loved those characters and spent a long time making them as engaging as I knew how. Then, when I abandoned all elements of a detective novel, to bring the tone of the book more in line with its subject and its central character, I had to toss them, along with about 200 pages.
Because I have cared in the past as much about how something is said as what’s being said, I have made it a point to hone lines and perfect scenes before I know if a character or a plotline will ultimately work. That means I can take forever getting something right, only to have someone like yourself point out that it might be entirely wrong. There’s a bit of a battle/war problem here. By the time I perfect something, the war be damned—look at all the battles I’ve made pretty! It’s an inefficient and self-destructive and often heartbreaking way to work, with the only comfort that of knowing you’ve been faithful even to the scraps.
I’m not saying it’s smart or efficient, and neither is Ferris, but I am also faithful even to the scraps.