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How to gut a novel for its own good

Those of you who tuned in at the start of this blog will remember that I drove to Colorado in July lugging a lot of words. My draft was 147,720 words, to be precise. And I loved each and every one of them. How I toiled over that dependent clause at the bottom of chapter 38, until it sang to me in this perfect, tinkling dependent clause voice.

Still, I knew that many of them would have to be selectively culled from the herd in the interest of not making agents and publishers choke. Being a newbie to fiction, I wasn’t aware until recently that 147,000 words is a lot for a novel, unless you’re Tom Wolfe or you’re writing the Unabridged History of Western Civilization.

When I printed out the draft at the Pagosa Springs UPS store, it didn’t look mastodon-like. It was 312 pages. Hey, it’s not that bad, I thought. Then I realized that it was single-spaced, in 11-point type, with margins so skinny that the words filled nearly every inch of the page. Which left very little space to scribble my edits on the hard copy. My notes look like tiny hieroglyphics from an ancient scroll written with a hummingbird feather. Three hundred pages of that.

For days, I’ve been squinting at those notes and making all those changes in the computer file. I’ve also got pages and pages of other notes, re-written dialogue, and scraps of new material scattered among legal pads and computer files. All of those are going into the soup too.

I’m on page 274 of the hard copy – about 40 pages from the end. So far, I’ve cut more than 53,000 words from the draft. In other words, more than a third of it is getting flushed.

And it feels pretty good.

I think 10 years of working behind an editor’s desk at the newspaper (not to mention years of grading college journalism students’ work) has made me a little ruthless, even with my own stuff. I also think that letting the draft sit in a drawer for a year helped. I’m so removed from the writing that it’s like reading someone else’s work — someone else’s bloated, unfocused work. All of a sudden, that dependent clause at the bottom of chapter 38 seems so … dependent.

So I’m going all Zorro on it with the red pen and trying not to flinch too much in the process.

Between the slashing X’s, I can see little glimmers in there where the dialogue or a plot twist still gives me a little jolt of pleasure, sections that even my squinty-eyed inner editor can read and say, Okay, it’s not all crap.

I’m hoping to finish this phase (which we will call the Drastic Amputation Phase) in a few days. I’m guessing I’ll end up with less than 87,000 words when the carnage is over. That’s still a lot, but no longer in the holy-shit-that’s-long category.

At that point, the book’s going to resemble an office building hit by a good-sized tornado, with big sections sheared away and scattered by the wind. Enough of the supporting structure will be left to keep it standing, some of the furniture and decorations inside will be oddly untouched, and the characters will be shuffling around in a daze wondering what the hell just happened. (In that metaphor, I get to be both the architect and the tornado.)

Oh yeah, and I have no idea how it’s going to end anymore. I’ve messed around with the first 250 pages so much that my current ending makes absolutely no sense anymore. I guess I could have a good-sized tornado drop down from an angry sky and wipe everybody out (except for the unredeemable minor character whose sudden epiphany in the face of senseless destruction gives the story a sense of profound closure). I think an F3 would about do it. Would that be cheap?

I think I mentioned a while back that I’d probably be re-writing big sections of the novel. I was correct.

Which seems daunting. It is daunting. It’s a lot of work. I just need to take what’s still there, weave it together with some new stuff, make my characters deeper and more compelling, and turn this mess into something people might actually want to read.

In less than 100,000 words.

4 thoughts on “How to gut a novel for its own good”

  1. You nailed the essence of editing – do it to some else’s work, or those drafts you kept meaning to get back to. My own writing, recently, exemplifies a new standard of perfection for English. Then I look back over 9 years of blogging and wonder who ever thought some of those sentences made sense. Keep up the good work. You are doing the hardest, but most fruitful, part of writing now.

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