Lean and Mean

In the backpack: Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
On the IPod: Lisa Gerrard, Ichi Soundtrack

I finished my whole draft of Eastlight in the fall. It had evolved so far from its original shape that looking back over the original scraps, I found it almost unrecognizable. And to be honest, I’m a bit embarrassed by them. So now I’ve finished another novel, but I had to ask myself the hard question: is it any good?

I’d like to think so, but at 85,000 words, I kept feeling like the book was a bit bloated. There was more description than I needed, particularly in the first, crucial, section. I gave the book to Alan (from over at RandomTope) and his input reflected what I already knew: we needed to do some pruning.

World-building is a key element in fantasy, but it has to be balanced against action. Alan was right on the money when he told me I’d put so much thought into all the factions and politics that the action was taking a backseat.

By the time I finished editing the first half of the book, I’d cut out 5,000 words. A full edit brought the cut to 8,000, though I decided to add a few scenes and the whole thing ended at 79,000. Why all the details on the word count? First, it’s what agents and editors work with, not page counts.

If you analyze a few paperbacks at random, you’ll notice that the word per page count varies wildly. Eastlight is meant to be a first novel, sure, I hope to make it a series, but for now it needs to be as brief and tightly written as possible. All those extra political factions were adding color, but so much that the main conflict wasn’t clear.

The second reason I focused on word count is that Stephen King’s advice in his excellent On Writing, is that an edit should reduce the word count by about 10 percent.

A final note on the importance of the first section: it’s the first thing a reader sees. I imagine at the bookstore, picking Eastlight off the shelf. They read the first line. Does it grab them? They read the first few pages, does it make them want to read more? That’s my goal, to grab them early and hold onto them till the end.

I think I can safely delete those old drafts of Eastlight. A little comparison shows me how much I’ve grown as a writer. The second half of the book needed a lot less cutting than the first. I’ve still got a ways to go, and I never want to stop improving; but I feel like I’m getting it, advancing in a craft and truly seeing a marked improvement in what I write.

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