Thursday, December 29, 2011


My script is perfect.  It comes out beautiful and flows like spring water on a crisp morning.  Since I wrote it, I'm certain everyone will enjoy it as is, and that there's no reason to go back through it at all.  Right?

I used to think this way, I really did.  It was conceited, arrogant, and showed a distinct lack of maturity, but it was also the truth.  Surely, I thought, I mastered the craft on the first telling - going back and reworking any of it would be a sign of weakness, and my writing definitely wasn't weak.

In my second novel, Salvation Day, I worked very hard to create a certain atmosphere.  I just knew that if I cut anything, it would hurt the mood I so carefully crafted.  However, after coming back to it several months later, I was shocked to discover just how much extraneous fluff there was.  The novel came out to 176,076 words, so I started going through it and cutting out adjectives and adverbs that were redundant(sprinted quickly?  really?  that just makes me sound like an idiot).  Before I knew it, I'd cut over 25,000 words.  I put it away and came back to it again a few weeks later, convinced that I'd cut to the bone.

Again, to my utter shock, I found still more fluff that detracted from the novel.  It took some more work, but I cut an additional 8,000 words before that chop was through.  I later went back through with a fine tooth comb, rewriting a few passages here and there and managed to hack off another 2,000 words.  Salvation Day is now around 140,000 words, and although it might still be too much for a first novel from an unpublished author, it makes for a more comfortable read(I'll get it out after my first or second one is published).

With Akeldama, I decided to try the same take I'd done with Salvation Day.  My editing process will surely evolve with time, but it works for the moment.  The first thing I did when I completed the work was to put it away for a month.  I didn't read it, didn't pop it up to relive my brilliance, didn't even bring it up to make sure it was consistent.  That gave it time to settle so I could relook at it with fresh eyes.

I liken the first cut to hacking off large chunks of meat with an axe.  This is the initial butchering of the cow and it isn't neat or precise.  Akeldama was just over 132,000 words, and I went in with a goal of cutting about 100 words per page(it was at 246 pages of size 10 Arial font, which is what I like to initially write with).  I was unsure that I'd be able to cut that much since I was certain my skills had grown since I wrote Salvation Day, but I picked up another lesson in humility when I found that I could easily hack away without losing effect.  Yes, I rewrote some of it here, but I mostly focused on removing adverbs and adjectives that just didn't belong, as well as other stuff that made no sense in a paragraph.  I felt I needed to get it under 100,000 words to have a prayer in hell of an agent looking at it, and I was pleasantly surprised when I got to the end and found I'd eliminated almost 26,000 words(it now sat just under 107,000).

I put it away and intentionally didn't look at it again for another month.  The next time I went through I was trimming away fat.  Here, I needed precision to carve up the ribeye.  More things got the boot, while still others were re-worded("speaking in a low tone" became "muttering," and so forth).  I cut another 8,500 words and got well past my word count goal.

I put it away again for two weeks or so.  The next time I went to it, I read it for pleasure.  I wanted to make sure the story flowed and set the right tone, so I read it the way I would read any novel.  When I came to an awkward sounding passage, I reworked it.  When something felt like filler, I removed it.  The biggest thing I did was to remove the "telling" of things and tried to "show" more(instead of "Seth was nervous," it became "Seth wiped the sweat from his palms onto his pants").  Still, I got rid of another 3,000 words and the novel now sits at 95,000.

Additional edits might come from an agent, a publisher, or any beta-readers that see it, but I'm probably done with self-edits.  That is not to sound like I'm returning to arrogance, just to note that I eventually have to be satisfied with the work.  I'm sure I could tweak it every day, but at some point I have to let the material speak for itself.  People will either like it now, or they won't.  Regardless of the outcome of that, I'm confident I've done what I could to produce the best story.

Next post - the dreaded query letter...


  1. This is so good. I like your process. I recently dusted off an old sci-fi book I wrote several years ago and it's amazing what I've learned about writing in the years between writing the rough draft and now. I like your process very well.

    As to your initial comments about your writing being perfect right from the start, I remember at a writing conference I heard an author say, "My first drafts are always perfect...they get my initial thoughts and plans on paper. That's it."

  2. Great story of your editing process at work, Russ. I have a friend whose editor told him he needed to cut 6,000 words from his 100k word novel before it was published. He was horrified at first, but as he went he realize he could have cut 10 or 20K. 10 years later his book is out of print and I wish he had cut that extra 20K. It might have gotten him more readers. Anyway, thanks Russ.

  3. Looking back, I'm often floored by the conceit I had over my first drafts. Or as others call them, "My precious babies."

    Joe, it is amazing the stuff we realize we could've done without and still had a wonderful story, if only we'd let go a little bit more.