Would cutting 400 pages make it a better book?

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By page 300 of Hideo Yokoyama’s novel Six Four, I was getting weary.  “Where’s the editor?” I kept thinking. “Didn’t someone have the courage to tell this guy his story isn’t working?

The questions of a book critic and a manuscript editor are sometimes the same ones.  It was true as I prepared my review of Yokoyama’s big bestseller for the pages of the Los Angeles Review of Books.  You can read my review by going here.

I found myself shifting gears and thinking of Yokoyama’s book as I would about my clients. ( To find out about my editing services, visit here for more information.)

The normal reaction of many manuscript editors — confronted by 500+ pages — is a simple one:  Cut, cut, cut.   Any novel that crosses the 300-page threshold is liable to sell poorly (that’s what some think, at any rate) unless it happens to have been written by J.K. Rowling or E.L. James.

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Haunted by Ghostwriting: Richard Flanagan

 

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Truly, ghostwriting is a gift. An ability to inhabit another’s voice and speak as if it were your own.

The fact that the little word “ghost” is attached at the front doesn’t change one fact: This is real writing. Difficult writing. Just like any writing.

When it works best (as in Andre Agassi’s memoir written with the help of JR Moehringer), there are no signs of it. The text feels composed by the autobiographer/memoirist alone. When it doesn’t work so well, as in Richard Flanagan’s case (described in his new book First Person), it sounds more like a demonic possession.

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Karma’s a critic (in this case)

Karma’s a critic (in this case)

In another post, recently, I wrote about the virtues of Michiko Kakutani of the NY Times — her invisibility except where it counted most: in her reviews.

But even there, she took books to task on their own terms.  She didn’t make it about her.

I used to edit somebody at the L.A. Times who was the opposite of Kakutani in so many ways — every review was always about him.  He was a mid-level critic with enough chops that my boss kept hiring him out … and I had to keep dealing with him.

Every phone call to discuss edits was a long, torturous discussion.  Every edit — even to change an article (which are as neutral, and as trivial, as the stones along a hiking trail) — required considerations worthy of the Talmudic sages of old.

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