Should you ever take the reader to the toilet?

I got my novel back the other day. A close friend read the first draft and while she liked many things about it, even found herself caught up in the page-turnerness of certain sections, she felt it needed a trim - a shave? a diet? The story is too fat. As someone who struggled with body image and eating disorders my whole adult life an overweight story is a scary thing.

I’ll tell you a non-literary secret. While I was first writing it I counted pages every day. A good day was a fat day – quality be damned. As the numbers grew it felt more and more like a book. Heft seemed critical. It doesn’t help that I had no idea where my lead character Sarah was actually going. We just wandered around together through her life as it unfolded - me an excited, often surprised voyeur on the journey. Some days it was like “Wow, I can’t believe that happened to Sarah today. I hope she’s going to be ok.”

But as Joyce Maynard told us last summer. “Don’t take your reader to the toilet.” The metaphorical toilet of course. Brilliant, crazy, pivotal things can happen in toilets. Just avoid dragging your reader through the petty, go-nowhere details. Now Sarah and I will have to battle it out over what remains. It’s still her story even if bits don’t make the cut. The best “tell all” books don’t. No one wants to hear it all. Maybe Sarah and I will arm wrestle over the choices.

Here I am being cool, like I’m the one who has no trouble cutting. Once you meet Sarah you’ll know it was the other way around – that she’d be all “I don’t fucking care. Cut that scene. I hate that asshole anyway. No one needs to meet him.”

But the chunkiness is not the real problem. I’ve plowed my way happily through many a chunky tale. It’s that the first 200 or so of the 520 pages sit around in pyjamas waiting to get dressed and go out to do something. I thought important things were happening while the story was in pyjamas. I thought they were great pyjamas - compelling, striking, tortured pyjamas. But it’s not poetry, where compelling, striking, or tortured might carry the day. It’s a somewhat conventional narrative that needs to get its ass out of the house. Readers need to know what these house-bound, ultimately pedestrian, meanderings reveal. I have a beautiful childhood scene, an unplanned visit of a friend after church that finds nine-year-old Sarah’s mentally fragile mom, in the kitchen, housecoat freshly stained with tuna oil, onions all over the floor, attempting sandwiches.  Does it stay or go?

So on top of the panic to post weekly on my blog, (I’m sure you noticed I’m a day late) submit regularly to Huffington Post, and try to find paid gigs here or there, I have to rewrite the novel whose working title turns out to be taken by a proper, already published, novel.

In case this is your first time here or you’re a superficial reader and haven’t figured it out yet. (Way to go Aviva, insult your readers) I’m not a go with the flow type of girl. Where is the flow anyway? And why would I want to go with it?

Comments

I can never get over how much I have to cut and cut and cut. It's heartbreaking, since every time I finish I feel like it's pretty perfect. Then, when it turns out the work can still be tighter and more muscular - and the cuts improve the work - I think, how can I trust my judgement when I loved all that fat? The process really blows my mind - but somehow I get seduced into engaging again, and again, and again...

There's a great line from Kafka: "The end of writing: when will it take me up again." I always love the grief of it, and the sense of that relationship with the work being so primary, but in the context of this conversation I think, "Does it ever end? Will I ever feel confident that I can call it complete?"

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