Yay for austerity - Nick Green

'Cuts must be fast and deep!' - George Osborne

They do say that if you want a lot of buzz around your blog, then it helps to be controversial. How am I doing? Luckily for me I’m currently out of the country, having written this well in advance before jetting off to the relative safety of… well, I won’t say where I’m on holiday, but at least it’s not a tax haven.

This isn’t the place for politics, but although it’s fair to say that the Chancellor and I don’t have many points of agreement, there is one topic where we see absolutely eye to eye – and that is the need for cuts. The one small difference is that he likes to do it to the places that keep books, i.e. libraries, whereas I prefer to do it in the books themselves.

The weirdest thing about reading on an e-reade– no, I’m going to call it a Kindle, it’s quicker - the odd thing about reading on a Kindle is that you don’t have a clear sense of how long a book is, or how close you are to the end. There’s the progress bar of course, but it’s no substitute for palpable weight and thickness. A friend of mine finished Bleak House and had no idea what an arm-breaker it was till she saw my paper copy. Arguably, this new insubstantial format gives writers more freedom to pen longer and longer tomes, now there are no pressures from printing costs or osteopaths. Even children’s writers such as moi, repeatedly begged by editors to keep things short and snappy, can wave Kindles like a license to err on the side of the Harry Potters.

But there’s a reason why ‘No Limit’ by 2Unlimited is one of the worst songs ever released. (Remember it? It goes ‘No no, no no-no no, no no-no no, no-no THERE’S NO LIMIT’ and that’s the good bit.) Because limits are the very channels of creativity.

Having strayed by pure chance into pop territory, let’s take the music album. There’s something right, natural-seeming, even divinely ordained, about the 45-minute album format. Yet this is merely an accident of technology – 45 minutes was the most you could squeeze onto a vinyl LP without losing the sound quality. Later, when CDs came along, bands started going for hour-long albums, but we weren’t fooled and we skipped the extra 15 minutes of duff tracks. Removing the limits just revealed the limitations.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but being forced to conform to an arbitrary set of limits is a good thing. Creativity is like gunpowder – it only goes bang in a confined space. Without their rigid constraints, haikus and sonnets would no longer be delicate crystalline wonders, they’d just be la-di-da. Or just take a look at Twitter – love it or loathe it, there’s a definite art to expressing oneself unambiguously in the space of 140 charac

When I finished the third book in my Cat Kin trilogy, my editor worried at how much longer it was than the preceding volumes – part of it was about wanting all three to look neat on the bookshelf. Editors are idiots, aren’t they? Or so I thought, for a couple of days. And then I gritted my teeth and I cut 10,000 words from a book I’d already cut by 11,000 from its first draft, taking out an entire chapter in the process. I’m still fond of that chapter. But my editor was right – the book was miles better without it.

Cutting bad bits is something everyone can understand. What’s harder to get your head around is cutting good bits. That chapter I took out of Cat’s Cradle – let me tell you, it was nail-biting stuff. But I had to cut something, and that one took the hit. Because all the other contenders for cutting were more necessary to the book as a whole.

When the Lord of the Rings films were all the rage, my Tolkien-obsessed friends and I used to play a game. Fed up with people complaining about what Peter Jackson had cut from the cinematic releases to save for the extended DVDs, we made some rules. You could choose one scene from an Extended Edition to put back into the cinematic version – but you had to take out an existing scene to make room for it.

So you could keep Merry and Pippin getting drunk on Entwash, but it might force out Arwen’s back story; or you could lose some of the battle scenes to keep Saruman in film 3 (Peter Jackson cut Christopher Lee! Now that’s badass editing). If you love those films, have a go – it’s surprisingly hard.

'Eat hellfire, Jackson!'

That’s why I’m wary of ebooks and their theoretically Tardis-like dimensions. If space constraints are forcing you to cut, you are forced to choose what’s more important. It’s no good saying it’s all important. You can still compare and judge and rank. Come on! It’s a fire, and you have to choose between your children. (Obviously, you choose the one with the straighter teeth and the greater future earning potential.) By being a hostage to impossible decisions – by being forced to cut to the bone – you end up with what you consider to be the truly indispensable things. In the political world, that might be the NHS and libraries, or it might be moats and duck houses. In the world of your book, it’s the difference between a good story and a great one.

Nick Green
Follow me on Twitter at @nickgreen90125


Jan Needle said…
excellent stuff, elegantly put. and the picture at the top was stimulating. there aren't many faces that beg so insidiously to be punched, are there?
Jan Needle said…
insistently, as well
I'll forgive you the picture of the man with the face (as a friend of mine put it recently) you would never get tired of hitting. This is interesting because of late, I've found myself reaching exactly the opposite conclusion. I think books are mostly edited to death these days. And often by people who are (like script editors, bleargh) earning their money by finding things to challenge, so they do. I started to wonder about it when I realized that my three favourite reads of the last year had all been longer than average and labelled (by some, not me) 'over-written'. That was what I loved about them. China Mieville's The City & The City was a case in point. Some people call it self indulgent. I was just so glad to find something that took its time, that wasn't polished to death, that went on giving me such a lot of pleasure as a reader over several days. I'm in the middle of reading two huge 19th century tomes about the Canaries, real door stops, full of fascinating detail - information I couldn't possibly have found anywhere else. I keep thinking what would have happened if an editor had got his hands on her manuscript and told her to cut out all the domestic detail. But I'm well aware this is fighting talk and most people won't agree!
Susan Price said…
Thanks for the post, Nick - witty as ever, and I hope you're having a good time on holiday.
Note that I'm very definately not getting between Nick and Catherine on this one!
madwippitt said…
So at some point, in keeping with the best possible traditions of Ridley Scott, George Lucas et al, we can look forward to Cat Kin - the Writer's Cut?
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
Susan, I'm happy to get between them for you. This is an example of today's 'received wisdom' about writing which is at best a half-truth, and maybe closer to 90% BS. At the very least, such anecdotal claims need to be thoroughly tested.

A great story has nothing whatsoever to do with how much it's been pared to the bone. Maybe you can make a good story better that way, or a mediocre one less mediocre (though even there it depends on a lot of other elements), but greatness is in a category all of its own - und thoroughly unpredictable.

I don't necessarily disagree about creativity and limits. But it takes a great mind to make something great of those limits. There are probably thousands more half-assed sonnets written than great ones. And a great writer can set his own unique limits and make them work.

(And there are an awful lot of people who seem to think Game of Throne is pretty good as is. Or Infinite Jest!)
glitter noir said…
In a way, this reminded me of reading Tristam Shandy or Don Juan--the digressions aren't distractions, but really the heart of the thing. Hope you enjoyed your vacation.
glitter noir said…
I'm growing increasingly curious about the comment deleted above. What'd you say, Nick?
Lee said…
Reb, unless I'm missing something, mine was the deleted comment. Nothing important, I just decided to add something to my original lines. I have a tendency to post rather too quickly.

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