On Revising (Part 3): Regarding word count and the joys of cutting words

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:

  1. Get an idea.
  2. 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 liegois.writing@gmail.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.

My Philosophy About Plot

The more I read in On Writing, I was fascinated by Stephen King’s vision of writing – putting interesting characters into fascinating situations. Plot was something that evolves as you put the characters through your situations, not something that you spent hours and hours outlining what will happen in your story.

That was not something I ever expected to read. I always had the impression that writers did spend hours and hours of time sketching out events, plot twists, and shocking endings. They used sticky notes or 3×5 cards like old James Jesus Angleton at the CIA, but trying to find the perfect plot rather than the mole destroying American intelligence. Nowadays they can use programs like Scrivener to help map it out with electrons and magnetic storage rather than paper products.

I’ve got a copy of Scrivener myself. I’ve actually found some use for it, just as I’ve grown attached to Microsoft OneNote for keeping track of things.

When I do use those programs, however, it’s usually more like writing reminder notes to myself than seeking the right path. As much as it has taken time for me to get on with things and be a true writer, once I’ve gone through the effort of committing the story to the computer and/or page, I’ve already written it over and over again in my head. How many times? For every novel-sized work I’ve written, it’s been too many to count accurately.

It’s like I’m one of those old oral storytellers, the ones they used to have in Ancient Greece or the Celtic lands. They were the guys who used to travel from town to town, village to village, telling their epics for room and board, maybe a small bit of gold if they were lucky. In my case, the audience was myself, but every time I retold, the story, I’d hone it, add and subtract characters and scenes.

And the story of this main character for the new project, the one I’m working on now, that’s what’s really driving this new project. This is one of those people that reminds me of some of the great characters I’ve read in novels, people like Daniel Torrance, Zaphod Beebelbrox, Muad’ Dib, Lisbeth Salander, Burke, Mark Watney, Anita Blake, and many others I’ve encountered in my fiction reading days. They’ve proven over and over again that when you have people this dynamic, this interesting, you can put them into almost any type of situation and it will generate a good story.

And the character, the one that’s been rattling around in my head for a few years, getting refined and honed until I might know more about him than I do about most of the people in my life? That’s going to require a post of its own, and I’ll get to that next.


A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 6: Stephen is Still The King

Last weekend, I happened to catch the new film version of IT at my local theater, at the suggestion of my daughter, who happens to be into horror more than a little bit. I have to say it was of a higher quality than the 1990 miniseries. After the movie, over dinner, we wound up having a lively discussion regarding why they moved the plot setting 30 years ahead of the original book (cheaper and more readily available 1980’s items than 1950’s items nowadays) and how the plot progressed fairly closely to the original text. I was surprised…




… that the filmmakers decided to split the story into two. But with that decision made, it made far more sense to me that they decided to focus on the Losers’ adventures as kids rather than going back and forth between teen and adult adventures. It made for a far more coherent plot line, all things considered.




As we watched the film, I kept thinking back to the prominence that King has had in my writing life. It is a place that has hardly diminished from my teen years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to come to terms with what it has meant to me.

My mother was – still is – never a horror fan. I was not going to be able to buy any of King’s books or watch his films in my parents’ house. I still had to respect that. But there were libraries, other opportunities to get involved with his work. And I did.

If there has ever been someone that I would count as a literary idol in my life, it would be Stephen King. I can’t remember the first King book I read, but I know that I read the vast majority of them from when I was a kid to now. I don’t think everything he wrote was great – not even he thinks that everything he wrote was great – but he has had way more hits than misses, and I firmly believe that the hits are keeping on coming even though he’s now in his seventh decade.

There were so many things about King that I dug so much. His plots… well, plot was never something that he was into, more interesting situations with interesting people. An outcast girl who has the telepathic powers of a demigod? Sign me up. Recasting the Dracula myth into an American ethos 20 years before Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I’m down. Writing two insanely long books that, in turn, aim to be the definitive apocalyptic thriller and the Great American Novel of childhood and growing up? Sign me up, brother.

As a kid, I was interested in the graphic nature of the material, but it was the psychological horror that really got me. There was plenty of guts in some of the books, but one scene that has stuck with me more than any of those was the one in Salem’s Lot where the father was so distraught at his son’s funeral that he jumped onto the coffin. (On a related note, Salem’s Lot probably had one of the most devastating endings I’ve ever read.)

Whenever I read King, I read someone who was in love with the art of storytelling. With King, I gained more insight into the people and country I lived in. I also managed to get a lot more insight than I ever anticipated about the culture of New England. (I still will argue that King should be classified just as much as a regional writer as he is a horror/scifi/fantasy author.)

Then I read his book On Writing when it came out. I still rank it as one of the best books on writing that I have ever read – so simple, such an easy read, a mix of his writer’s biography and whatever advice he gave to be a writer. I’ve used adverbs sparingly and watched out for the passive voice ever since – a lot of my students got the active verb/passive verb lesson from me at one point or the other.

More than the individual pieces of advice, it was a literal dare to me. As I read it, I realized, this was what it meant to be a writer. This is what it takes to really dedicate yourself to being a writer, never mind a successful writer, however that’s defined. Are you ready to take him up on the challenge?

Reader, for many years, I was not.

Why I was not ready to meet that challenge, after years of saying I wanted to be a fiction author, writing tons of journalism that some people read and others disregarded in places that were never hotbeds of news, and teaching more than a few people how to write better themselves?

Man, that is a massive question. In fact, it’s probably such a massive question that it will likely dominate Volume II of my writer’s biography, which I think will soon start. (Don’t worry, I’ll likely put out some more stuff about reading as a kid, AKA Volume I stuff).

But to start answering it, I have to mention about how I always compared myself to King. I saw in him someone who was inherently a writer, and I always pictured myself as lesser than him. I didn’t get started writing serious fiction until I was much older than he was when he got his first book published. He’s put out more fiction than entire towns of authors. I’ve come to accept I’m not going to write as many books as he will, much less James Patterson. (Yes, I know Patterson has help.)

I’ve accepted that, though. I’ve accepted not being a literary superstar because that’s not really the reason I’m writing anymore, even though I’m really interested in finally getting my fiction published somewhere, in some capacity. But it’s OK to have something to shoot far, even if you miss the target. I get why Joe Hill hid his name for a while, took some time to become his own person before his name got out in the world. He’s a damn good writer, too.

Now I just want to be me as a writer. With my recent work, with this blog, I might start to finally get there.