Johnson, comparing the historian William Robertson with Goldsmith, famously said to Boswell

You must look upon Robertson’s work as romance, and try it by that standard. History it is not. Besides, Sir, it is the great excellence of a writer to put into his book as much as his book will hold. Goldsmith has done this in his History. Now Robertson might have put twice as much into his book. Robertson is like a man who has packed gold in wool: the wool takes up more room than the gold. No, Sir; I always thought Robertson would be crushed by his own weight,–would be buried under his own ornaments. Goldsmith tells you shortly all you want to know: Robertson detains you a great deal too long. No man will read Robertson’s cumbrous detail a second time; but Goldsmith’s plain narrative will please again and again. I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

Amusingly, Boswell adds “it is probable that Dr. Johnson, who owned that he often ‘talked for victory,’ rather urged plausible objections to Dr. Robertson’s excellent historical works, in the ardour of contest, than expressed his real and decided opinion; for it is not easy to suppose, that he should so widely differ from the rest of the literary world”. Do you think?

Quiller-Couch likewise wrote:

Style … is not–can never be–extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it –whole-heartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. _Murder your darlings._’

I finished a fairly protracted bit of editing last weekend and sent the pear story off to the Guardian competition. Four friends and family have now read it and of course all had different views about what I should change or keep. I felt like Jo in Good Wives when her “cool, impartial persons” all tell her different things, as do her family:

So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing everyone, she took everyone’s advice, and like the old man and his donkey in the fable suited nobody.

Her father liked the metaphysical streak which had unconsciously got into it, so that was allowed to remain though she had her doubts about it. Her mother thought that there was a trifle too much description. Out, therefore it came, and with it many necessary links in the story. Meg admired the tragedy, so Jo piled up the agony to suit her, while Amy objected to the fun, and, with the best intentions in life, Jo quenched the spritly scenes which relieved the somber character of the story. Then, to complicate the ruin, she cut it down one third, and confidingly sent the poor little romance, like a picked robin, out into the big, busy world to try its fate.

There were some structural problems about the end wch I hope I sorted. But what struck me was how hard, even with multiple passes through the thing, it is to strike out the “good” bits, or murder one’s darlings. When I went through one of my father’s novels with him we called these Ruperts, after a character who was pointless except to advance the plot – one of the characters was being interviewed by mysterious civil servants, and someone came in to the office, announced himself as Rupert, handed over some forms, made a few jokes and left. We cut him and then when we found extraneous words wch weakened or at best failed to strengthen the writing we leapt on them with cries of “it’s a Rupert”.

Here are some of the Ruperts I removed from the pear story:

“Then the apothecary, the same day, talked of”
“Or perhaps fruit flavours for you today?”
“that slight – ve-ry, ve-ry slight – but unmistakeable reek”
“the greatest houses, those where the”
But never mind that, you know your own business”
really, they would be”
Now this was unfathomable
In future, he said”

Those were the ones I found in pass five, I think – there were around another 15 passes. Mostly what they do is interrupt – one over-writes, explains to the reader too much, comments on the action. It’s a lack of confidence in the text. A few of the Ruperts were also jokes (such as sudden changes in register) that may have been amusing in themselves but didn’t work in this story.

I also found a random typo pretty late on – the curate’s house had a rood rather than a roof. At least one of my readers thought this was a point I was making about religion.

Other things I had to do a lot of work on were rhythm and tracking the characters’ / narrator’s eyeview – who exactly is seeing the action described.

Anyway, I can’t imagine it will win – there’s the randomness of any big competition, and also the story itself is too weird, not the sort of thing they’ll be looking for. But it’s good to have got it done, particularly during a period of insane busyness at work (on leave this week, hence the rash of posts).


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