I think that I reached a new level of maturity as a writer a couple of years ago when I cut 1,000 words from the manuscript I was working on at the time and I was as excited about that as I was writing 1,000 new words.
For several years, I taught writing either primarily or as part of my other language arts instruction in the general education classroom. Now, I teach special education, but I do advise many of my students regarding their writing, and some of them have writing goals that I work with them on.
Some of them have been eager writers, and some of them I’ve had to figuratively drag onto the page. But one common problem many of them have had was that they considered the process of writing to be:
- Get an idea.
- Write it down.
As I explained to you at the start of this series, that is not the case. Personally, I have come to believe that the revision is where the true heart of the writing takes place, a lesson I have tried to impart on my students and something I have worked to structure my instruction around. At the junior college level, for example, I always found that more essay peer review and instructor review had more value for the students than any live lecture that I gave.
“Liegois, you must have always been a great revising wiz, then,” you might or might not say. Or, it might be the voices in my head. I don’t know or care. However, I would have to respond to this statement by saying – Reader, there were a few holes in my game. *
Specifically, the one hole that I am thinking of is that I tended to write a lot more than I needed to. A lot more.
You’ve got to remember, I was the guy who turned a relatively simple journalism thriller into a 160,000-word opus. After I wrote it, I began reading all of the writing advice articles that said to avoid anything bigger than 100,000 words unless you were Stephen King or George RR Martin or whatever. Obviously, the idea of cutting more than one-third of an existing novel horrified me.
Until, that is, I actually did it.
Reader, you will never be as hyped as you will be when you cut that 1,000, 2,000 words from your manuscript and realize that nothing of value has been lost. Oh, my goodness, the relief you will feel from having all of those unnecessary words fall away from your work will be nothing like you’ve ever felt. It will be like the old lumbermen of the Mississippi River clearing a log jam from a bend of the river and watching the logs flow into the main channel. (I get to use the river metaphors because I live on the river, got it?)
I may have told this story before**, but I realized something about myself in my former, unfettered form, when I wrote and never had a care for how much I wrote – I wrote a lot. People tended to tell me I had an ear for dialogue when they read my stuff, which was nice – I’m a massive admirer of Elmore Leonard, so I was down with that. The only problem was, I wrote pages and pages of it. I wound up writing three pages of dialogue in a situation where one page of dialogue would have done. I realized that I should have taken in the example of Clint Eastwood when he cut out much of the dialogue from that one movie of his when he realized he didn’t need it.
The point is, when I actually started to look at what my characters were saying, I realized that they only had to say it once (maybe twice, if they were nervous), but no more than that. Once I realized that, my manuscript started to shed words 1K at a time without too much hassle. After several months, I was down to a manuscript that I could live with.
I know I am not alone in having this problem. And when I say this, I am referring specifically to one author I am a big fan of, Laurell K. Hamilton. I’m such a fan that I have, at this minute, something around a dozen paperbacks of her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series on my bookshelves. When she started getting complaints about their being too much sex and not enough crime-solving in her books, and she wrote a book that was all sexual and romantic relations and no crime solving in it, I laughed out loud and bought a copy. Trust me, I am a fan. #
But she goes on and on. There’s sex scenes that could fit into one chapter rather than two, dialogue that could wrap up after a half-page rather than three pages. None of this makes me want to not read her, don’t get me wrong. However, I want to try and avoid the same pitfalls in my own work. (Kids and peoples, that’s what you should be doing whenever you read someone else’s work, whether it’s something you like or not. You should be looking for what you should avoid just as much as what you should copy.)
When I started writing my latest project, The American Nine, I had word count in the front of my mind the minute that I started to write the rough draft. I quickly realized, as I went through my notes on the project and started to judge what could fit into less than 100,000 words, that I had more of a trilogy on my hands than a single work. I remembered the stories about how J. R. R. Tolkien shopped around his manuscript of Lord of The Rings around to his buds on the University of Cambridge campus and that they were horrified at the size of the manuscript. He wanted to put the entire Lord of The Rings story into a single volume, can you believe that? Finally, his buds on campus managed to talk some sense into him and get him to turn it into a trilogy and avoid boring generations of lit students and #SciFiFantasy fans to death. $
The point is, I’m likely not the first one that ever used the phrase make every word count, but I consider that to be an axiom in my own work. Words are important. Use them wisely. Artistic restrictions can be good for you more so than they can be bad. Just as Roger Corman or William “One Shot” Beaudine about that, and they’d tell you the same thing.@
That’s it for now; more later.
*Statement should not imply that no further holes in said game do not exist.
** Famous last words.
# Laurell, email me at email@example.com. We’ll talk shop; it’ll be cool. We can talk about what it’s like to live in a Mississippi River town and what not.
$ I know I told this story before.
@ This might be the most hyperlinks I’ve ever used with a blog post.