Yesterday I wrote those deeply satisfying words, The End. At least, metaphorically I did. I had reached the last words of the last chapter of my current work in progress, the second book in the historical fantasy series, Warrior Bards. It felt pretty good to be finished after months and months of work. I posted something on my Facebook author page to the effect, and readers shared my delight at reaching the milestone. I let them know that at around 155,000 words the manuscript was well over the contracted length and that my next step will be a rigorous edit and polish, including making major cuts before I submit it to the publishers.
Some readers were disconcerted, and I got a few questions about why I need to comply with a requirement to stay within a certain word count. Back when I started off as a published writer (twenty years ago now) my publishers were happy to accept a longer fantasy novel – my longest was a whopping 220K – and some of my most loyal readers find it surprising that what was acceptable in 1998 is considered too long now. One possible explanation is that publishers believe reader attention spans have dwindled with the rise in digital technology. Another is that bigger books are more expensive to publish. At one stage I was told that longer books don’t fit on the display shelves in one of the major retail outlets in the US (I have been unable to verify this!)
Harder to explain to readers was the fact that the manuscript simply isn’t ready to go to the publisher in its current form, despite the months of work I have put in and the many revisions I have already done. This isn’t a first draft. As I write, I stop after around three chapters and revise. Then I write the next three chapters and revise the whole thing. And so on until the last few chapters, which more or less write themselves. That means the earlier parts have been thoroughly edited by the time I reach the end. Yes, I’m way over at the plotting and planning end of the spectrum.
My previous novel, The Harp of Kings, underwent a painful editorial process which I have blogged about before. It, too, was over-long in its initial form. Even after I had performed my own pre-submission edit, it had some major flaws that were pointed out by my editors at the publishing house, firmly but kindly. Their structural report was even lengthier than usual. I took a good hard look at it and found i agreed with them on most points. I did the work, which involved a major rewrite, and resubmitted. The proof of the pudding will be after that book is published in September, but advance reviews have been extremely promising, and I know it is a much better book for its painful reworking. What did I learn from that?
As I do my final edit on the new book, I’m keeping in mind that experience and how it all came out right in the end. I’ll be looking for sections with slow pacing, inconsistencies, sub-plots that are insufficiently integral to the story as a whole. Glitches of timing. A tendency to fall back on favourite phrases or over-use favourite words. Named minor characters who more or less fall out of the story – I know there’s at least one of those. I need to be as rigorous, as detached, as professional about this as I can be.
That’s not easy, even for a seasoned writer with quite a few books under her belt. My characters feel entirely real; they’ve come to life on the page with all their quirks and sensitivities, their strengths and their flaws. I’ve followed their journeys for a long time now, and I know instinctively how they will act, what they will say, how their relationships will unfold. They’re like family. And just as family can make complications for you in real life, so those characters you love can make trouble in your book. If you get too fond of them, too close to them, it becomes harder to don the editorial hat. ”But he would say that!” ”But she’d never accept that!’’ You need to step away a bit, in the interests of better storytelling. For instance, my characters tend to talk too much, both aloud and in internal monologue, and that can slow the pace.
I’m performing this edit with some confidence. I believe that while writing the new book I remembered the problems with its predecessor and avoided making some of the same errors. All the while I remind myself that good storytelling comes first.
Writers, what is your revision process? Do you use beta readers? How do you and your editor work together to make a better book? Readers, do you love long books (500 pages plus?) If so, why?