Here a few weeks back, my daughter, Jesi, wrote a post on her blog about editing in which she talks about my formula—lifted from Stephen King—of editing: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10% (I lifted it from his book On Writing,which I can’t recommend enough). Jesi stated that she didn’t necessarily subscribe to that formula. Furthermore, she stated
that I’ve told her if I want, say, a 90,000-word ms, I’m gonna write 99,000 words.
Guilty as charged.
Where I think the misunderstanding comes from, though, is her thinking that I pad my work only in order to have the requisite ten percent to cut. I say misunderstanding, but to be quite fair, I think that misunderstanding is my fault, because of the way I stated things.
See, it’s my belief—and the vast majority of writers and editors would agree with me—that first drafts are good, but always need work…and they’re usually too long. Especially if you write seat-of-the-pants as Jesi and I do. I’ve deleted whole pages from some of my stuff—false starts that felt good when I wrote them but didn’t pan out as the novel progressed. I had loads of those in Pipeline, and I admit it freely and without shame. If you look at the book Writing Fiction for Dummies, authors Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy devote quite a bit of space to describing the different methods people use to write—from full, detailed outlines to sitting down at the keyboard with no idea on God’s green Earth what you’re gonna write about. (Okay, maybe that last is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.) What they say it all boils down to is that you either do all your work at the beginning or in the end. Although there are several ways to write a story, and they cover the entire range I mentioned above, they reduce to two end results: do the work before or after.
What that refers to, for the most part, is working out your plotline and plugging up any plot holes.
But even outliners have to edit.
There have been exceptions to the rule, of course. Isaac Asimov didn’t rewrite because he believed doing so robbed the
story of its spontaneity. And I’ve read that Thomas Harris (Red Dragon; Silence of the Lambs) simply won’t accept editing. He also won’t do interviews, so I’m tempted to tag him eccentric. If you can get away with that kind of thing, more power to you. Both are successful writers, even if they’re at opposite ends of the scale output-wise.
So why do we need to edit? Mostly because first drafts require it. Let me give you an example from the first draft—and I mean the first draft, since it’s ended up going through several by now—of Pipeline:
I pulled over to the side of the road and got out of the car. I hadn’t seen anybody for maybe an hour or so, and there weren’t any fresh lookin’ tracks on the road. I could hear an airplane flyin’ by way off, but it was almost drowned out by the wind in the trees and the birds singin’. The road I was on ran north to south, more or less, and the trees throwed shade across it. There was an old field on the other side, but it was growing up in weeds and brush. Didn’t look like anybody’d bush hogged it in a long time.
The driveway was washed out some. It ran up the hill and disappeared among the trees. An old black mailbox, one of them big ones some country people get, stood off to one side, leaning backwards with the lid slanted up toward the sky. I looked at the ground and saw that the county had cut a ditch right across where the driveway took off, so nobody’d been up there in awhile. ’Course, far as I knowed it might must lead to some old field, but with that mailbox there I kinda doubted it.
Not that bad, right? I mean, for a first draft and all. Now compare that with the edited version:
I pulled over and got out. I hadn’t seen anybody for maybe an hour or so, and there weren’t any fresh lookin’ tracks on the road. The buzzing of an airplane off in the distance was almost drowned out by the wind and birds. The road ran north to south, more or less, and the trees throwed shade across it. An old field across the road was growed up in weeds and brush. It hadn’t been bush-hogged in a long time.
The driveway ran up the hill and disappeared in the trees. An old black mailbox, one of them big ones some country people get, stood off to one side, leaning backwards with the lid slanted up toward the sky. The county had cut a ditch right across where the driveway took off, so nobody’d been up there in a while. ’Course, far as I knowed it might just lead to some old field, but that mailbox said probably not.
Says the same thing, but with some changes, huh? Another thing to note: the first passage is 202 words. The second, 160. That’s quite a bit more than ten percent, and I picked it that way on purpose because I wanted to show several cuts and edits. I’m sure some of you out there can see others that still need done in the second draft, but you get the idea.
Now, of course, not all of the ms gets this much editing. If it did, I think I’d start considering another dream to dream—macramé, maybe. Stamp collecting. Something like that. There are even a few pages that didn’t get notes put on them (though they probably would if I looked at them again, now that I’ve got more emotional distance).
But, see, I don’t pad or fluff just to have words to cut. Not at all. Sure, I shoot for a word count roughly ten percent over what I want my goal to be. But it doesn’t always work out. In my novel Spree, I ended up with over 108,000 words. If I want it back down to my goal of 90,000, that means I gotta cut over 18,000 words. If I cut ten percent, that’ll just put me at around 97,000 words—still too high. So, what do I do? Well, I’ll go ahead and do my usual edit, but I’ll be looking closer for scenes I can cut. I’ve already got some ideas on that score, scenes that haven’t really played out. If you put your mind to it, you can cut a lot out of your story. And, as Stephen King says, if you can’t cut ten percent, you’re not trying very hard.
Yeah, I can hear some of you now: he’s full of it.
Maybe. But I’ll tell you what: I’ll do it my way, you do it yours. We’ve all got our ways of doing this writing thing. It’s said that Kurt Vonnegut edited each page as he wrote, so he might not get more than one or two pages a day. But when he finished, it was ready to print. Can you imagine doing that in the days of typewriters? That guy must have had a huge trash bill.
The bottom line is, you edit to make your story better. If you think others are interfering and trying to tell you how to do your writing by giving you a convenient formula—and especially a formula that seemed to bring them closer to success almost immediately—then don’t listen to them. Do it your way.
I’m not published (yet). I don’t know how much my opinion on how to do things counts. But I do know this: life experience has shown me that I can learn a lot from people who’ve already been there and gained success doing it a certain way. There are far too many folks out there trying to get published for me to ignore someone like Stephen King, who’s been a bestselling writer since the 1970s—that’s closing in on forty years. Not a bad record in an industry where careers are often measured in single digits, not the number of decades. Doesn’t mean he’s infallible, and I don’t subscribe to everything he says. But I’d say I agree with at least ninety percent, and probably more. Whether you like his writing or not, he didn’t get where he is by accident or by knowing someone.
Does that mean you have to whore yourself to the publishing industry?
I give you an emphatic “Hell no!” It’s your work, and your name will be the one associated with it. I see certain conventions going on right now that I will not allow in my work—such as using the word alright for all right. I think I’ve harped on that enough that I don’t need to explain my position on it. There’s a difference between bettering your work and making yourself look like an illiterate idiot, and I refuse to do the latter.
I’ll finish this post off with a paragraph from page 18 of Writing Fiction for Dummiesthat explains what I mean very
Great writing never happens in the first draft. It happens when you edit your work—keeping what works, chucking what doesn’t, and polishing it all till it gleams.
I couldn’t agree more.