Lessons learned on the butcher’s block

Finished the carving last night. The Helix Dance (title still very much open to change) currently clocks in at 124,200 words, and there I (really for real) think it might stay. I would feel generally comfortable submitting this in its present form. I’ve been through this book four or five times now, and I’ve cut the prose to the bone. I’ve only cut three or four actual scenes wholesale, because while the prose was very puffy, the actual progression of the plot was in fact fairly tight. Or at least I think so. I would be more surprised if this wasn’t in keeping with a pattern with me.

This book was around 165,000 words long when I started cutting. So somewhere around 40,000 words have been cut–and I want to emphasize this again: very little of that was in scene cuts. Getting that much out was simply a question of going back through line by line and looking very hard at the words, and figuring out ways of making them do what they needed to more efficiently.

Why did I cut so hard? This is a measure of how much of this I’m still learning as I go. As it turns out, most publishers are leery of investing in printing a really long novel if the author is relatively unknown. This is probably equal parts an element of what readers tend to prefer, and the state of publishing in general at present, but regardless of the reasons, the fact is that if you aren’t Stephen King1 shorter is, to a point, better. I have a much, much better chance of selling this thing at 124k words than I did at 165k.

But it’s not all just about marketing. I was rankling at the constraints of length, until I realized what it was forcing me to do: look not only at each scene but at each word, question whether or not it really needed to be there in its present form, and make a call.

This is something that I think I have in common with a lot of writers who like to play around with words themselves: we do something really cool with style or with a turn of phrase and then we get blinded by our own cleverness and fail to notice that our marvelously creative turn of phrase is redundant. Or unnecessary. Or nonsensical. A rejection that I got around a year ago called my writing “very good, if slightly self-indulgent”. I bristled a little at that, but then I took another look at the piece and realized that the editor was right: I was too in love with my darlings to see that they made the story very puffy. They needed to be killed. So I made hard cuts.

Close to a third of the first draft of The Helix Dance didn’t actually need to be there.

I think this tends to be more of an issue with long pieces–and in fact both novellas I’ve published benefited from some significant additions–but I still think it’s a valuable lesson to take away from this process, and it’s one I’m still learning. Look at the words. The words serve the story, not themselves. If they aren’t doing that, no matter how pretty they are, they need to go.

Kill your darlings. Kill them with fire.

1 And in fact probably if you are, AMIRITE

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