The Great Cut: Excellence vs. Perfection in Revision.

This is my eighth 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.

Well, after 7 weeks I have successfully completed the first pass through my novel with the goal of cutting 50,000+ words.  My final word count is 125,939. That’s over 45,000 words cut!

Earlier this year, I may have poured myself a glass of wine and danced around my bungalow shouting, “It’s finally perfect.” Yet,  today I am reminded of the words of Michael J. Fox when he said, “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”

Revision is a process of excellence not perfection. When I first considered the idea of cutting my novel, I was resistant. I now wonder how many writer’s get stuck right there. If we believe something is perfect it can’t be improved or revised. Taken further, there are no perfect novels but there are plenty of excellent ones.

When I took my first writing class in college, our teacher shared with us a series of revisions E.B. White had made to the introduction of Charolette’s Web. I remember raising my hand and saying, “There’s no way he could have revised the whole book like this.” My teacher simply raised an eyebrow and smiled. I finally get it.


The Great Cut: “Get to the point.” A few points about cutting dialogue.

This is my seventh 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.

Our characters are a sum of their words and dialogue is the window into their souls. For the writer, dialogue is an intimate channeling, and for the reader, a voyeur’s delight. Sharp, faced paced dialogue keeps the reader engaged and brings clarity to our characters in ways description cannot.

In terms of revision, dialogue has a major influence on pacing. Unnecessary attributions, tags and descriptive elements can slow down a story. Remember that if characters aren’t engaging and memorable then there’s no point to read about them.

Sometimes, we fall too much in love with our characters’ voices and become their muses. Saying too much is usually a greater sin than saying too little. Ask yourself, “Does this dialogue have any meaningful contribution to story or character arc?” If not, you may want to cut it out.

Below, is an example of a scene where my adolescent protagonist, Cana, is talking to a boy, Blandus, about a monster he witnessed. I cut the scene because neither Blandus nor his experience played a significant role in the story arc. It also was not important to Cana’s character arc.

Blandus stood behind his father Laelius who was cutting cheese and wrapping it in cloth. One of the boy’s eyes was bloodshot and his face was covered in bruises.

Lucia stepped into the front of the line and nodded her head respectfully. Laelius’s eyes widened in surprise. “Lucia? I haven’t seen you since…well…before. I heard about Icabus. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you, Laelius,” she spoke quietly. “Is your boy okay?”

Laelius looked over his shoulder nervously. “Oh, he’s fine. He just fell. You know kids.”

A horrified look crossed Blandus’s face and he turned away. Lucia touched Cana and the shoulder and said, “Why don’t you say hi to Blandus while I get a few things?”

Laelius nodded and Cana squeezed between the stands. Laelius handed her a piece of cheese on a stick, “On the house,” he said.

“So what do you have to trade today?” Laelius asked.

As Lucia explained her various tinctures and herbal preparations, including a salve, which she claimed would ease the swelling and soothe Blandus’s face,” Cana sat with Blandus.

“How did you fall?” she asked.

Blandus looked at his Father who was smelling the various contents of Lucia’s bottles. “Out of a tree,” he said.

“I’ve fallen out of a tree and my face never looked like that.” She grabbed one of his hands. “How is it that you did that to your face and you don’t even got a scratch on your hands.”

Blandus looked again to his father, who was still preoccupied, and whispered. “I’ll tell you but you have to promise not to tell anybody?”

Cana nodded and made a crossing motion over her heart. “A few nights ago, I heard the goats crying. I thought they were hungry but when I went to see what was wrong, I was attacked.”

“By what?”

“A monster.”

“A monster?”

Blandus nodded. “Like the one people talk about in the woods, but it wasn’t in the woods, it was in my backyard.”

“You got away. It’s okay now.”

Blandus looked down. “Yah, the monster told me to run and not look back. He killed my goats.”

Blandus began to sob and Laelius looked over his shoulder. “Blandus?”

“I’m okay. My face hurts, that’s all.”

“Better make it two salves,” Laelius said to Lucia, “and one of the dropsy cures for fever.”


The Great Cut: Chapter Pacing

This is my sixth 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.

Pacing is important in any novel. It helps keep our readers engaged and ensures that it doesn’t take four paragraphs to get our characters across the room.

There are many ways to improve pacing in a novel.  Starting a chapter from the inside out verses the outside in is one example. Others include removing information dumps and excessive descriptions.

James Ellison once wrote, “You write your first draft with your heart, and you rewrite with your head.” The heart is not concerned so much with pacing as it is with telling the story. Pacing is the province of the head.

After correcting for the obvious flaws noted above, reading through a chapter a second time can often tell you whether more can be edited to improve pacing. Cutting unnecessary or redundant dialogue or simply revising it to be sharper can make a world of difference. It also lowers word count!

Just like you don’t want it to take four paragraphs for your characters to cross the room, you also don’t want your characters spending time somewhere they don’t need to be. If your chapter starts at point A and ends at point B ask yourself, “Could I have just started at point B?” If the answer is ‘yes,’ then you may have found a quick way to improve pacing and lower word count.

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.”

The Great Cut: A Death to Darlings


This is my fourth 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.

Chuck Sambuchino wrote, “The heart writes the first draft, but the head writes the second–and that means critical editing, where darlings will be killed.”

When I began my revision journey, my heart told me that cutting 50,000 words would be nearly impossible. It’s good the way it is. I just need to find the right person to read it. That’s your heart talking.

It’s easy to get trapped there. Now that I’ve cut 23,000 words, I think the hardest part was starting. To my heart’s surprise, I think the novel is actually getting better.

Literary darlings come in many forms.  They can be descriptions, dialogue or backstory. Their shared commonality is that they stand apart from the plot.

For me, character backstory is the most difficult to cut. In the example below, one of my characters describes how his brother was taken by a monster as a child. The conversation didn’t serve the greater plot but I believe it did provide a little more depth to the character.

Atellus leaned back against a tree and scratched his chin. “What about you Atius? Have you lost anyone?”

Atius looked into the fire. “When I was a boy, my older brother Albus was taken.”

“By those rat-things?” Gurges asked.

Atius shook his head. “No, something worse.

“When we were children, we used to play by the Old Kingdom’s gate. As some of you have seen, the gate is made up of an outer iron grating followed by a short corridor and closed off at the end by a set of oak doors. Back then, the doors weren’t fortified and a corner of one of them had rotted away making an opening to the city. It was a game of ours to see how close we could get to the doors before running away.

“One day, we were playing our usual games but Albus didn’t run away. He just stood there in the vault staring at the hole in the door.

“I asked him what he was doing and he said he heard someone crying inside. I thought he was just joking or trying to scare me.”

Atius became silent and Gurges spit a chunk of goat fat into the fire that sizzled. “Come on. I want to hear the rest.”

“Albus went inside. I remember him saying how quiet it was in the city. I was too afraid to remember what else he said.

“He disappeared behind the door and poked his head back through a moment later with a fat grin. I cursed at him for scaring me. He was coming back through the hole when something caught his attention.

“‘Wait here, little brother. I do hear someone crying,’” he said to me.

“I begged him to come back, but he didn’t—he never did. I waited there till sunset calling out for him. It was only when I finally decided to run home I heard it. Crying. Just beyond the door. It sounded like my brother but in my heart I knew it wasn’t. And I ran faster than I ever ran before.”

“You never saw the monster?” asked Licinius.

Atius looked into the woods. “Not that night. But when I was older I saw something in these woods. The Gods must have favored me that night because I fell asleep on watch and was awoken by a twig breaking. I didn’t see all of the beast but I saw enough. Its head was like a wolf’s with yellow eyes that glowed in the dark.”



The Great Cut: The Dreaded Information Dump

This is my third 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.

When I started my first chapter it felt natural to describe my characters . Details about what they wore, their eye color and even the texture of their skin seemed to be important details my readers would want to know. Little did I know, I had succumbed to the dreaded information dump.

Information dumps are often related to the problem of telling verses showing. Stopping a story to describe an character’s backstory is one example. Long character descriptions are another. In both cases, the reader is provided with information that may not be necessary or could be more naturally shown through the story arc.

In the revision of my first chapter (and others), I was embarrassed to find a lot of telling that had to be cut. In the example shown below, the second paragraph is clearly a dump.

“The deck creaked behind Urms, and two Gilian of the Order of Rites approached bearing torches and oil. “I must check the cabin before you begin,” Urms said.

The Order of Rites presided over all Gilian ceremonies and funerary rites. They spent years in solitude where they memorized the ancient rituals and sought the gift of foresight. Members of this Order tattooed their bodies with elaborate mandalas conceived in visions and wore jewelry of beads, shells and gems collected from the lake.”

The Great Cut: Inside Out Vs. Outside In

This is my second 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.

In my initial queries to literary agents it never occurred to me that my book might be rejected because of how it started. Then I learned about the difference between starting a story inside out vs. outside in.

Think of your favorite film… How did it start? I bet it set the scene. This is common in film. Sadly, I found it is also a good way to get a potential agent or editor to stop reading your manuscript. Eek!

Movies often start outside-in. They establish the scene and move in. Novels work from the inside-out. They start with what matters and build around it.

So how did my novel start? Gasp! THREE PARAGRAPHS OF DESCRIPTION.

After axing the paragraphs quoted below, I opened the scene with dialogue and action and built my setting around it. I went inside-out.

Stay tuned for my next revision post.

“The three ships looked abandoned. They were moored together fore to aft forming a makeshift triangle. Tattered white sails flapped lifelessly against sun-bleached masts. Over deck nothing moved except for the wandering carrion flies, attracted by an air of decay.

Even if the sails were mended, the oars not broken and the men not dead, there was nowhere for the ships to go. The channel where they rested was one of hundreds in a labyrinth of terminal waterways that formed the forest lake. Here, the floating islands of trees held dominion.  They moved with the wind and the currents, forming new waterways and abolishing others. All channels appeared to lead to the island at the center of the lake but no path led there.

It started with a stirring in the water. First, the crickets fell silent and then the flies. A ripple spread out from the ships into the forest causing the hallow trees to rustle like wooden chimes. One by one, the patches of floating trees drifted near, surrounding the ships and closing the channels. Tree shadows covered the ships and again there was silence.”

The Great Cut: A blog about novel revision

One of the most necessary and difficult parts about writing is revision, especially when it entails a significant cut in word count.

Recently, I completed a High Fantasy novel of 172,000 words.  After pitching the book several times, I got a similar response. “I think you have a better chance of publishing this project if you could cut 50,000 words.”

“What? Fifty-thousand words? Can I give you a kidney instead?”

Moving through the five stages of grief I came to a simple truth–I didn’t need to cut 50,000 words to get my book published, I needed to cut 50,000 words to make my book better.

I started to wonder how many writers get stuck at this step. Denial is a powerful form of ego defense, after all.

This blog is a story. It’s my story but it might also be your story. I invite you to come along and share in my revision journey. I’m sure it’s not always going to be easy and there will be some literary casualties along the way. So take a deep breath, let it out, and let’s dive in.