While the contest is simmering away, I thought I'd tell you about a book I bought for a quarter at a library sale the other day. New and gonnabe writers may find this useful:
The book was a hardcover copy of Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein. More specifically, it was the first edition of the Original Uncut Version . . . essentially, the unedited manuscript. When RAH turned it in, his editor insisted it be cut. And it was cut, from 220,000 words to 160,000 words. After Heinlein died, his widow Virginia had his books reissued as they were when he first handed them in to his publisher.
Which gave me the opportunity to re-create that original editing and see what it teaches us. I got out my paperback of the book as it was first published and reverse-engineered the first page.
Here's the opening to Heinlein's most famous novel as he turned it in:
Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith.
Valentine Michael Smith was as real as taxes but he was a race of one.
Now, there's nothing actually bad about that. But compare it to the opening after it was edited down:
Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.
Which is one of the most famous opening lines in science fiction, and deserves to be.
I marked up the page to reflect the changes that Heinlein (not his editor -- I'll get back to that in a moment) made. You can click on the photo to see them. After the opening flourish, Heinlein cut 82 words from the original 205 and added 5. Which is to say he cut well over a third of the page.
Years ago -- have I ever told you this story? -- I cut five thousand words from a ten thousand word story. There was a lot of money involved. So when I went over Heinlein's text, crossing words out, I was on familiar territory. First to go are the adverbs. Then excess description. Qualifiers. Explanations of all kinds. All those embedded essays which don't advance the action. Everything that isn't absolutely necessary to the story. And, having been through this myself, I am convinced that the cutting was primarily done by RAH himself. Because all that was most essential and all that was most idiosyncratic about his prose remained. No editor willing to require a cut of more than a quarter of the text would have made the effort to preserve those idiosyncrasies.
And the end result? There was an undeniable flattening of Heinlein's prose here and there. Cutting it to the bone did make his novel look pulpish where it was not. And people who have read the whole thing through testify that there were sexy bits (dipping in at random, I haven't found them) which were cut simply because the times were far more prudish back then. But for the most part the cuts were salutary. Removing "slowly"s and "if less important than"s and the like brought up the brilliance of his active creations in the same way that grinding away encrustations reveal the brilliance of fossil bones.
Here's the rest of the page with added words in brackets:
The first human expedition from Terra to Mars was selected on the theory that the greatest danger to man
One can regret some of the lost technical detail, but there's no denying that the sleeked-down version read a lot cleaner, crisper, and clearer.
And how is this helpful to new writers?
Well, one of the things that all of us have to learn is to cut, cut, cut -- and then cut some more. It hurts. Particularly when you have to cut something that's actually good. Afterward, you look at the manuscript page and it's all corrections and slash-outs and . . .
Your heart sinks.
But look at Heinlein! Buy one of his novels in edited and unedited forms. Compare and contrast. You'll discover that he was never really Robert A. Heinlein, just a guy who could be edited down into Robert A. Heinlein.
So, too, with you. Yeah, your prose is lamentable. But maybe you're a lot closer than you think. Maybe your awful novel can be edited down into something splendid.
Robert Heinlein's was.
And have you heard?
J. D. Salinger is dead. I love everything he's ever written except for Catcher in the Rye. Now the vultures are gathering on PBS and NPR and BBC to explain that the only possible explanation for his long silence was that he was crazy.
This is nonsense.
I'll explain why on Monday.
And the contest . . .
. . . is still on. Getting a neologism right is hard work. Otherwise, I'd never have asked for your help. Right now, I'm at the making-lists-and-sorting-through-suggestions stage. And I've assembled a Blue Ribbon Panel of unpaid family members to help me decide.
More ideas are always welcome. You can post 'em here or after Thursday's blog.