Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

When the writing stops, the cutting begins

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On Sunday, I went to a branch of the ubiquitous print shop franchise that I continue to think of as Kinko’s, although apparently Kinko’s itself hasn’t existed as a corporate entity for many years, and picked up a copy of House of Passages, the sequel to The Icon Thief. These days, my routine for reading a first draft is pretty fixed: since this isn’t meant for anyone’s eyes but my own, I cheerfully disregard the usual conventions of proper manuscript format, printing out the whole thing single-spaced and binding it all together. The former is to save paper; the latter is to keep all the pages in one place, both for convenience while reading, and also for archival purposes. This is one printout of this novel, possibly the only one, that I’m going to keep forever.

Over the past two days, I’ve read through the entire manuscript, making cuts and emendations in pencil on the draft itself, while taking notes in a separate journal (from Ex Libris Anonymous, incidentally). Some of these notes are as basic as the fact that I no longer like a certain supporting character’s name; others point out inconsistencies in the plot or areas where additional information needs to be laid into an earlier section to prepare the reader for developments to come. Because I’m cutting and taking notes at the same time, it took me longer to read through this draft than I expected. All told, it required about twelve hours, spread out over a couple of days, to work my way through the entire thing. (I was also distracted by the fact that my wife and I are buying a house, but that’s a story for another time.)

Once I finished going through the manuscript, I began the laborious work of entering all of my handwritten changes into the copy I’m saving in Word. By itself, this process of transcription can take something like four hours, and there are moments when I’m tempted to save time by reading the draft in Word and making the changes directly. Still, there are reasons why I’ve stuck with my current method. Reading close to 130,000 words online isn’t great for the eyes. There’s also something satisfying about the physical sensation of crossing out whole sentences and paragraphs with a pencil. Most importantly, by dividing the process into two parts, I’m giving myself an extra chance to think, reconsider, and amend my own changes, and I’ve often made interesting discoveries while transcribing.

The upshot, then, is that after two days of work, I’ve already cut 15,000 words from the draft, which is pretty much where I wanted to be: I’ve easily obeyed Stephen King’s dictum, which I wanted to do before showing the novel to my agent, and I still have leeway for later cuts and revisions. By the end, after I’ve sweated out the rest (to use George R.R. Martin’s phrase), the manuscript should be roughly 100,000 words long, which is about right. And as for the novel’s merits…well, it’s a first draft. I already have a long list of changes I need to make, and it’s going to change in a thousand other ways, many of them unknown at this point, before it’s of publishable quality. All the same, it strikes me as reasonably competent, occasionally readable, and only periodically confusing—and I have two months to make it better, which is a good thing. Because the clock starts ticking now.

Written by nevalalee

July 13, 2011 at 8:48 am

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