Cutting Out The Good Parts

 

By Louise Ure

 

We all know that famous Number Eight on Elmore Leonard’s list of tips for writers: try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. I agree with Leonard but then I read about Jonathan Safron Foer, who goes him one better.  Foer not only wants to take out the parts folks might skip, but then proposes to write an entirely new book from the leavings after deletion. He started with Bruno Schulz’s book, “Street of Crocodiles,” and then deleted words to not only write new sentences but create an entirely new story.

 

 

 

My first thought was, “Dang, some publisher sprang for big bucks to produce this.” The second thought was, “Why?” Aside from topping the list for “Amusing Things You Can Do With an Exacto Blade” I don’t see the purpose. And the resulting “new book” is nowhere near as good as “Street of Crocodiles.”

 

 

 

In an effort to be more open-minded than usual, I tried to do the same with one of my favorite books, Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible.”

 

Here’s her original opening:

“First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.”


 

Now my strikethrough version (Exacto blades not being available yet as an Apple app):

“First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

 

Resulting in:

“ First, I want to be like muscular animals, clutched in copulation, strangling their own kin, sucking life out of death.”

 

Meh. I don’t think Kingsolver has anything to worry about.

 

And I started thinking about other things that were not as good when they were cut, and that brings me to Singapore. Singapore is one of those hybrid countries that like to think of themselves as democracies but behind the democratic mask is a conservative, authoritarian government that makes all the rules for how its citizens should live their lives, based on the Prime Minister’s own proclivities and preferences. Lee Kuan Yew was Prime Minister of Singapore when I lived there. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, is today.

Lee Kuan Yew didn’t like long hair on men, so any man arriving at the international airport got a haircut if his locks were longer than his collar. Bruce used to have to tuck his ponytail into a baseball cap to get into the country.

Lee Kwan Yew once stepped on some bubble gum getting out of a subway car. Soon enough, the sale of chewing gum was banned and arriving visitors were limited to “two sticks for their own personal use.”

And Lee Kuan Yew didn’t like public displays of romance or violence. My Time magazine would arrive in the mail with half the stories and ads blacked out with a Magic Marker or sliced out with scissors. No kissing. No revealing clothing. No blood, no gore, no guts. (This, in a country that has long held my personal award for Best Newspaper Headline Ever when The Straits Times ran with the 18-point type screaming: “500 Tiger Penises Seized!”)

Imagine my surprise when I got to see the real version of “Silence of the Lambs.” Granted, I couldn’t make out much of a storyline in the Singapore version of the movie (all 40 minutes of it), but I kept thinking, “Why are all the U.S. and Australian papers warning about how scary this is?”

Much like Foer’s cut up book, the Singapore-edited versions didn’t match the originals.

What about you, ‘Rati? Would you ever read a book like Foer’s? Or want to create one? And does anybody have an example of something that was better in the abridged version?

 

P.S. I’m heading to Australia for a couple of months to spend time with a covey of old friends who are eager to help ease me back into the land of the living. Since I’ll only be posting from my iPhone, I can’t promise that my Tuesday posts will be timely, long or articulate, but I’ll give it my best shot.

 

P.P.S. And don’t any of you burglars even think about a visit while I’m gone. I’ve got two friends with a very big dog staying here in my absence.

 

 

๏ปฟ

 

38 thoughts on “Cutting Out The Good Parts

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    I think sometimes demi-celebs of notoriety like to say provocative things…. but don't really mean them. An author — who is creating their own world with each word — should use whatever words they want and in whatever quantity. Who knows what one reader skips and what another wouldn't?
    I suppose it's summer in Australia, isn't it. Have fun, relax, recuperate, but watch out for the bugs. I know someone who's been a few times and says they're doozies.

  2. debbie

    Louise, I understand Australia is a beautiful country. Friends strengthen and embrace, gently guiding us to the place we want to be, but having lost our way, cannot seem to find. I hope your time away brings peace and comfort.
    I have enough difficulty editing my own MS…I would never think to edit somebody elses. ๐Ÿ™‚ I do think that certain books, if they were new releases today would be edited differently and not just to update or make content relevant. Take Les Mis. Entire chapters to establish the bishop, whose role if I'm not mistaken was to change Jean Valjean's heart…essentially backstory. This and the battle of Waterloo, also very lengthy and establishes that one character is without scruples and another indebted to him, could too have been a paragraph. That said, I wouldn't change a thing. So much more is spoken in these chapters. Poignant, thought provoking musings on the human condition. Must writing serve the story or does it sometimes go beyond to feed the soul? Writing can be poetical, lyrical, and unfortunatly because our society weighs so much in dollars and time and mass appeal, what is being said is traded for will it move off the shelves, set in motion future sales of said author. All sounds cynical I know, so on a positive note, screen writers who adapt novels well, have a gift for the editing process, for entering the world created by another and bringing it to life in a metamorphic state…but now I've segued into a whole new post!

  3. Alafair Burke

    I like your created sentence, Louise, and bet Barbara Kingsolver would find it very clever.

    I don't understand why abridged audio books exist. I accidentally listened to one once, and the jumps between scenes literally didn't make any sense.

  4. Dudley Forster

    Alafair – They're cheap and you get what you pay for. . I use Audible and always have a book on my iPhone.I listen to so many books I have have favorite narrators (yeah Scott Brick!). I refuse to listen to abridged anything. What's the point, it's worse than decaffeinated coffee.

  5. Louise Ure

    PK, I've got the bug zappers ready.

    Debbie, I love your dissection of Les Mis, but the reference to screenplays is equally interesting. Of course, they are abridgements!

    Alafair and Dudley, audio books are a perfect example. And Dudley, you still like listening to them?

  6. judy wirzberger

    I am overwhelmed with emotion. The cut down version of the first paragraph is so unbelievably moving I had to go to the bathroom to throw up. You made me want to fly over Singapore. Louise, I love the way you look at the world. I look forward to hearing about down under and will jealously think of you and your new experiences. Gobble them up. I hope laughter and peace accompany you during the day and park beneath your bed at night (or do they have creepy crawly things under the bed?)

  7. Grace

    I love your edit — too funny!! Australia – wow! Probably take you three months to lose the accent when get come back. Travel safe.

  8. Kagey

    I think in an age of unedited, direct-to-ebook stories, there may be times when an abridgment might be an improvement. Yet, that may be more a lack of editing problem, rather than an issue with length. If an author and an editor have worked on a piece, polished it appropriately, it usually has a rhythm and flow that won't work when abridged, unless the same care is taken when abridging. Here I'm thinking of the full-length Stranger in a Strange Land vs. the originally printed edition. I read the unabridged version first, printed after Heinlein's death, and couldn't understand why folks were so excited over it. IMO, the condensed version was tighter, better written.

    Also, I think different people skip different parts of the story. My mom told me she skipped the fist fights in all the Louis L'amour westerns she read. But I'm guessing male readers don't.

    I agree with the thoughts on Les Mis. Part of the writing of that time was a product of the market — on installment, with word count equating to pay, and an audience starved for entertainment. Dickens sometimes suffers from the same "problem" — but I agree that sometimes these chapters that seem overdone in the context of the overall story are almost perfect entities to themselves — could be read as short stories, which, when printed in installments, they sort of were. I'm thinking of Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" inside The Brothers K, too.

  9. Louise Ure

    Thank you, Katherine. Bring on the sun!

    Judy, I love the image of laughter and peace parking under the bed.

    I'll probably lose the accent, Grace, but the Australian-isms will be with me forever.

    Kagey, I've never done the Stranger in a Strange Land comparison and think it would be fascinating to read both. (Now, I'm not sure which version I read … probably the abridged.)

  10. lil Gluckstern

    I guess there are some "cultish" writers who can do anything, and be considered clever. Of course, your sentence is wonderful. Thank goodness, there is enough out there to please everyone. Sometimes, I just love to burrow into a book, and change worlds. Speaking of which, enjoy Australia and your friends, and may peace and laughter, indeed, park under your bed, or around your bed, or in your life.

  11. Dudley Forster

    Luise – Unbridged versions only. As a network engineer and consultant I'm in my car a lot during the day. Some books don't work well in audio format. I love Robert B Parker and in book form I just read through the he saids, she saids, but in audio format they become quite annoying. I tend toward action adventures for audio books, authors like; Rollins, Cussler, Preston and Childs and DeMille.

  12. Patricia Smiley

    I have a friend who's a wonderful writer but she edits her narrative until it's more like a poem than a novel. Lovely writing but sometimes too spare and cryptic IMHO.

    Louise, hope you have a wonderful trip and a healing adventure. xoxop-

  13. Louise Ure

    Lil, Alex, Patty and Allison, thanks for the good wishes. I'm really looking forward to this trip.

    And Dudley, you're right. The "he saids" don't bother me when I read, but if I read the passage aloud they drive me nuts.

  14. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Have a wonderful time. Travel hopefully, arrive well, return rested.

    I like trimmed-down prose, and I've occasionally heard or read abridged version that were, to be honest, an improvement on the original. But taking a knife to the page is going a bit far, don't you think?

  15. toni mcgee causey

    I'm with Allison — I so want to go to Australia (and I have friends in Melbourne who have a cottage apt attached to their home where I could stay, so maybe some day soon).

    What Foer does is not just "cut out the parts that people skip," but he sabotages the full, sumptuous four-course meal and turns it into a dried biscuit, with sour tasting ham wedged between the layers.

  16. Louise Ure

    Yeah, Zoรซ, there's a difference between trimmed-down and cut-up.

    "What Foer does is not just "cut out the parts that people skip," but he sabotages the full, sumptuous four-course meal and turns it into a dried biscuit, with sour tasting ham wedged between the layers." Zing! You nailed it, Toni.

  17. Dudley Forster

    Louise – Forgot to wish you a good trip down under. Was reading yesterday on the National Geo site about the Hairy-Nosed Wombat. Cute fellows, maybe you'll get to see one.

  18. dave arnold

    "P.P.S. And don't any of you burglars even think about a visit while I'm gone. I've got two friends with a very big dog staying here in my absence."

    And, the guy next door has guns…

  19. Allison Davis

    Louise, Bon Voyage. Hug a Koala and eat some kangaroo meat (oh dear!). See you on the other side.

    I always wondered why there was "Reader's Digest Condensed Books" when I was a kid. I thought it was cheating, like Cliff Notes.

    Editing is one thing, gutting the story is an entirely different animal.

    The only thing I did like that was when I was in my 20's, I put a roll of butcher paper in a typewriter and wrote stream of conscious for about 10 feet. Then I took the words on the right side of the role and wrote a poem, and took the words on the left side of the role and wrote a poem. Worked pretty good. I don't recommend reading the role. I displayed it once in a gallery — nice as art, not so good at a literary piece. Hell, I was like 22. So abridged much better.

    I could never go to Singapore — your boy the prince would have rash of laws, all of which I would cause to be written or would violate.

  20. Laura

    Have a great time in Australia. There are flash flood warnings in Melbourne today, but hopefully we'll get to see summer soon! It's an Aussie version of a White Christmas – a Wet Christmas. :p
    Don't forget to pack your flip flops for the beach (and over here we call them thongs! – The look of horror on my host mums face when I was living in New York and told her before we left for the pool I had to grab my thongs was priceless…)
    Have a wonderful time!
    And it will stop raining. I hope.
    Laura ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. Louise Ure

    I like your butcher paper book/poetry, Allison. Didn't Ken Kesey write on a paper roll?

    Meh, indeed, Pari.

    Yes, Laura, I'll bring the flip flops … er … Thongs.

  22. KDJames

    One of my favourite books as a child was called "The Funny Mixed Up Story" (if I remember correctly) and most of the places where nouns should be were blank lines and at the back of the book was a sheet of those nouns to be cut up and put in an envelope and pulled out at random while reading. It resulted in sentences like, "You're not a bear," said the Spotted Bear, "you're a _bathmat_!" I loved that book.

    Other than that, I'm not a fan of cutting up or rearranging words others have written. Foer should start fresh and use his own words, just like the rest of us.

    Louise, I can't wait to hear your take on all things Australian! I suppose we'll have to go along with the small deceit that your iPhone is the only way to access the internet from downunder and accept "inarticulate brevity" from you. [snort] As if. But you know, whatever it takes. Safe travels and have a fantastic time!

  23. Karen in Ohio

    Louise, at the moment I'm rereading "The Corrections" for book club. It's my own fault, since I brought it up. Oh, well.

    At any rate, I would say that some of the writing is excellent, but he could have cut out a third of this weighty tome and still told the same story. The first paragraph, which is extolled by a reviewer, is so untruthful to the book it makes me cringe.

    Australia is a big country, and I'm so pleased to know that you have months to explore it. We went for two weeks, and never left New South Wales, although we had a spectacular time there. Safe journey, and healing, joyful experiences.

  24. Louise Ure

    KD, if the technology doesn't screw me up on this trip, the time zone confusion will!

    And Karen, you've read it twice and I still have The Corrections on my TBR.

  25. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    So sorry so late to the party, Louise. Very cool post. I've just started reading William S. Burroughs again – starting with "Junky." His book, "Naked Lunch," was written as a cut-up–he wrote the sentences, cut them up, then pasted them together in a jumble to create the book. This was back in the 50s. Pretty trippy stuff – but I'd prefer writing that was written to express a particular idea, not a random one.
    Have a great trip to Australia!

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