The Great Cut: “Wow, there are a lot of characters in that chapter!”

This is my fifth post on novel revision. The goal: cut 50,000+ words from my 172,000 word fantasy novel to make it a marketable piece of fiction.

It is said that the wise have many counselors. I say that a good novel has many sample readers.

Sample readers are often friends, family members or fellow writers who have some relationship with you. As such, they may not critique your work in the same way as a paid editor; however, that is not to say the comments of sample readers are any less important.

“Wow, there are a lot of characters in that third chapter.”

“At first, I wan’t sure what was going on, but I think I figured it out.”

“It started slow but really picked up after the first few chapters.”

These are a few comments I received from one sample reader. Notice, the comments are reflective and not directive. This is an important point. Most sample readers know how hard you’ve worked on your novel and may not feel okay with leveling heavy criticisms. Therefore, whenever I meet with a sample reader, I make a point to listen carefully and send my ego out for a glass of wine.

In the first quote above, my sample reader casually mentioned that I had “a lot of characters” in my third chapter. Digging a little deeper, she told me she had trouble tracking them.  When I went back over the passage, I noted that I introduced five elders, one boy and three men. Eek! Information dump!

After careful review, I cut the entire passage below. For those who have read my earlier posts, you may also notice a lot of telling and not showing in this passage. Needless to say, none of it was essential to the plot.

“Down at the docks, Piscius pulled an assortment of nets from his small rowboat. He had a reddened complexion from working outdoors and an unhealthy consumption of hard apple cider. His son Pelagus, who was a younger, healthier, image of his father, stood at the ready to accept various articles as they came out of the boat.

“If we find anything of value, I want a cut seeing as it’s my boat,” said Piscius.

Atius ignored him and continued to the end of the dock where the town Elders stood looking out at the ships. There were five Elders—Maro, Vetus, Cilo, Ralla and Silana—who acted as arbiters and leaders for the village. The position was held for life unless illness or old age dictated that it be passed on sooner, in which case the remaining Elders elected the replacement. Maro, who was younger only to Vetus, was the head Elder, a ceremonial position renewed yearly that required him to preside over town meetings, officiate over grievances and offer public statements on behalf of the body.

Cilo greeted Atius with a large, warm smile. “Atius, come over here. I need your opinion on a theory of mine.”

“Gods spare us,” Vetus grumbled, accentuating his already deep frown lines.

Cilo waved him off and grabbed Atius’s shoulder. “I think the Gilian have given us these ships as a gift for being such bad neighbors. Can you imagine if Vetus here came to your house every twelve years only to say he had nothing to say?”

“I may yet do that to you, Cilo, if I live so long,” said Vetus, turning back to the ships.

Cilo laughed. “Now that’s humor!”

“I’m not sure what to make of this,” said Atius. “None of you have heard from the Gilian?”

“Not a peep in nearly a decade,” said Maro, without a smile.

“They are impressive ships,” said Silana.

“Like the pictures in the old books. Do you think they are from the Old Kingdom?” asked Ralla.

“No,” said Vetus. “That would make them a hundred years old. Nothing could survive in the lake that long. These ships are from Arx Caeli.”

A tall man with gaunt features and grey-green eyes approached the group accompanied by Mattia. Silana smiled. “Are you joining this expedition too, little brother?”

Cyprian smiled. “Aye. My rusty old spear is joining, too. Any sign of life on those boats?”

“Not that we can tell, Cyprian,” said Maro.

Cyprian regarded the boats. “It doesn’t feel right. These ships come out of nowhere and come to rest in our bay. Who else is going to join me?”

“I am,” said a skinny, young man with chin length, straight black hair. He wore leather pants and a vest over a thick khaki tunic. Across his shoulder, he carried a length of rope and attached to his belt was a curved blade used for skinning and cleaning animals.

Cilo frowned. “Vescus, I’d rather you not.”

“I’m sixteen, Father. I can make my own choices.”

“Aye, and what have you done with that responsibility? How many apprenticeships have you squandered…three, four? Iulius told me you were a natural trapper and yet you do not follow through. I don’t know how many more opportunities I can make for you.”

Vescus reddened. Even Atius felt slightly embarrassed for the boy. He was a motivated young man and began apprenticing at thirteen, a year before it is accustomed. He showed promise in trapping, blacksmithing, farming and construction, in which Atius was his mentor. Yet, for all his talents, Vescus always found an excuse to change pursuits. Atius did not think he did this out of boredom or lack of discipline. The boy was like a puzzle piece that fit almost everywhere but never quite perfectly. Atius hoped that whatever destiny the Gods had for Vescus he would find satisfaction with it.

“I’m sorry I disappoint you, Father. You know I dreamed about these ships the night before they appeared. I want to help if I can.”

Cilo crossed his arms and looked back at the ships. Atius thought him not angry but worried.

“You can come along,” said Atius. “But you’re to man the boat in our absence. Aye?”

“Yes,” said Vescus smiling. He went over to Piscius’s boat and threw his rope inside. Cilo nodded agreeably to Atius.

“Well, let’s see to it then,” said Atius. “Gods protect us.”

“Gods protect you,” offered the Elders in broken unison.”

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