Hold on, you say. Amadeus is an account ---- a highly, highly fictionalized account --- of the supposed rivalry between composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. It’s about music, not writing.
Well, yes, it is about music. But it’s about lots of other things, too, including murder and mayhem, and it is a great story, in spite of (or perhaps because of) many of the elements in the tale being pure fabrication with very little historical evidence to back them up. (Whenever Hollywood includes the phrase, ‘based on real events’ in tiny font buried somewhere in the credits, they aren’t kidding. As I frequently admonish my students, Hollywood never allows the facts to get in the way of telling a great story. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing… you just have to realize at the end of a historical piece or a biopic that, at the very least, in all likelihood, you have not been treated to an unchanged, unembellished retelling of the facts.) But I digress. Umm… the illustration of the editing problem. Yes.
In Amadeus, Mozart is commissioned by Austrian Emperor Joseph II to write an opera for the Vienna state theatre, and he’s delighted to oblige. The result is The Abduction from the Seraglio. Following the premiere, the Emperor comes onstage to congratulate Mozart and the cast. Mozart, whose arrogance is exceeded only by his naivete, is desperate for compliments (read: validation) of his work --- something I think nearly all artists, including writers, seek in varying degrees --- and presses the Emperor for praise. Joseph is prepared to give his approval --- but is not about to gush unreservedly, leading to this unexpectedly humorous exchange:
EMPEROR: Well, Herr Mozart! A good effort. Oh, well, decidedly that. An excellent effort! You have shown us something… quite new tonight.
MOZART: (beaming) It is new! It is, isn't it, Sire?
EMPEROR: Yes, indeed.
MOZART: (wanting more) So, then… you liked it? You really liked it, Sire?
EMPEROR: Well, of course, I did. It's very good. (pause) Of course, now and then --- just now and then --- it seemed a touch...
MOZART: (anxiously) What do you mean, Sire?
EMPEROR: Well, I mean, occasionally it seems to have… oh, how shall one say? (he pauses, at a loss, then turns to Count Orsini-Rosenberg, Director of the State Opera) How shall one say, Director?
ORSINI-ROSENBERG: (smugly ready to oblige) Too many notes, Your Majesty?
EMPEROR: (that’s it) Exactly. Very well put. Too many notes.
MOZART: (bewildered) I don't understand. There are just as many notes, Majesty, as are required. Neither more nor less.
EMPEROR: (not ready to lose face) My dear fellow, there are in fact only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening. (Unsure of himself) I think I'm right in saying that, aren't I, Court Composer?
SALIERI: (knowing perfectly well the comment is ridiculous, but not about to argue with the Emperor) Yes! Yes! On the whole, yes, Majesty.
MOZART: (angrily indignant) This is absurd!
EMPEROR: (in his best oil-on-troubled-waters manner) My dear young man, don't take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.
MOZART: (sharply sarcastic, refusing to be mollified at this attack on his genius) Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?
Note to self: dissing a Head Honcho who has the power of both High and Low Justice over his subjects (i.e. licence to kill, rather like James Bond) is perhaps not the smartest thing an artist can do… but fortunately for Mozart, his little tete-a-tete with the Emperor is interrupted at that moment, and life goes on…
However, it’s that one line in particular that is, I think, so characteristic of so many writers: “I don't understand. There are just as many notes/words as are required. Neither more nor less.”
Ah, the innocence of youth. For example, the first draft of my first novel, Gryphon’s Heir, came in at a bloated 202,000 words… but I didn’t see it that way. No, no. There were, of course, just as many words as were required, neither more nor less.
But it really is as Sir Arthur Quiller Couch said in his advice to writers everywhere and everywhen: Murder your darlings i.e. cut your words. Most of us don’t want to use one word when six will do, and so many of us get wrapped up in the glory of all our beautiful words (my first draft revealed I have an inordinate fondness for double adjectives, for example), we can’t bear to part with any of them. But Steven King even gave it a formula: he said your second draft should be your first draft minus ten percent. And both Quiller Couch and King are absolutely correct.
Four drafts later, my final version of Gryphon’s Heir clocked in at 186,000 words and change. The ironic thing is, even as my prose became much leaner, I was able to add more material so there was much more narrative in the actual story than there had been originally.
So, edit your work, my darlings. And murder your darlings. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to be objective, especially if you’re an indie author working on your own. Yes, it’s work. But here’s the brutal truth: no, your story is not perfect in that first draft.
And it’s actually rather fun to take an axe to your words. You don’t have to bloodily and arbitrarily hack away everything, for crying out loud. Just the unnecessary stuff. And the more you do it, the better handle you’ll get on what’s unnecessary.
So hack away. Draw some blood.
It needn’t be a massacre.