Checking Off All the Boxes

The last quarter of 2011 has involved a pretty hefty pile of writing-related stuff, including:
Getting the first two Windrider books up and running
Looking ahead to the tasks involved in creating the print compilation
Designing or at least having my fingers on the situation with my cover art

And now...delving into potentially massive edits for Sword of the Patron.

As I've been doing all this, there are a couple of things that industry professionals have said that continue to ring in my ears. One is something Dr. Ted Baehr said. The gist of it was, "It's just as much work to go small as it is to go big." I'm finding that to be resoundingly true. While the places I may be able to focus my efforts and have influence may be different with a small publisher than a large house, there is no easy, sit-back-and-watch-it-happen route to getting books on the market. And once those books are out there, the task of finding new people to buy them is staggeringly hard. What the long term benefits of going small vs. holding out to go big are going to be, it's way to early to say.

The other words that are ringing even louder in my ears, especially as I look at the underlying structure of Sword of the Patron, are the items I learned from David (Wolverton) Farland in the week long workshop I took with him. I have a checklist on my wall of things I specifically took away from that experience, which stare at me in red ink every time I sit down to work. The checklist goes like this (and these items are not in priority order, just so you know)

Setting: Is my setting vivid--either wondrous or resonant? What specific ways am I creating spectacle in terms of setting?

Theme: does every scene serve to expound upon either primary or secondary themes?

Hooks: Am I raising questions at key points in the scene?

Stakes: Am I making things matter? Are the circumstances difficult enough?

Conflicts: Does every scene serve to either deepen or broaden the conflict?

Hierarchy of Beats: Am I writing to my audience with the emotional beats of my scenes in mind?
Now, this one, I admit, requires a little explanation. Because I am writing fantasy for an older teen to adult audience, and because my primary reader will likely be female since I am a female writer with a female protagonist the hierarchy of beats I've decided I need in my work is all follows (and these are in priority order):
  • Wonder
  • Adventure
  • Romance
  • Horror
  • Humor

If I am not hitting one or more of these beats in a scene, generally, the scene is dead weight, and it needs to be trimmed or cut. The trick is hitting all the beats in the correct proportion without bloating the story just to get the beats in.

As I look into potentially deep cuts to SotP, I keep finding I'm either narrowing the conflict instead of deepening it, or else I'm eliminating something in the top three beats in the hierarchy. The book feels like a stack of fruit in the produce section, and I'm trying to pull out 30% of the stock in the bottom quarter of the pile, and praying the rest of the display doesn't come rolling out at me in a avalanche of embarrassing disaster.

Now, admittedly, there are about 3,000 words that can go without question. I had a sense they would be on the cutting room floor even when I was selling the book at a conference back in August, so I had already severed emotional ties to the content. I wanted to retain the character in question to use in a later book so that I wouldn't have to create a new character for a coming scenario, but if I'm being truthful, that's one apple I can pull from the rows at no risk.

But the other 7,000 words--those are proving their elimination diffuses the danger. That much I can see despite my myopic author's view of the story.

I had really hoped that having the manuscript out of my hands and head for about three months would bring me back to it with a professional detachment that would make it easy for me to carve it up now that the time has come. But in some ways, it's become harder now. As I look at each passage and recall the sweat and tears involved in crafting it, I feel like I'm throwing away a long friendship. Yet at the same time, I know we as writers need to step back and take an impassive look at things, through the lens of our editors' input, and make the hard cuts.

I haven't gotten to the right answer here yet. And that's probably why this blog post sounds like I'm thinking out loud more than a cohesive commentary. I'll likely be posting occasional updates to the editing journey, and I hope they will be a help to my writer friends who read this, and at least an interesting peek at the process for the non-writers.

For now, it's time to get back to analysis of this ol' work in progress.


  1. A good writer friend of mine calls it "killing your darlings." It is hard. Very, very hard. But I also found that once I got going, it became addictive.

    My manuscript was at one point 114,000 words. The final count: 93,500. That's over 20,000 words cut. After multiple edits, and even adding in scenes! Had you told me two years ago that my word count would have dropped so much, I wouldn't have believed you!

    The good thing about writing these days is that we use computers. So we can have multiple copies of our manuscripts. Use one to chop-chop, kill your darlings, knowing that if it's not working, you still have a copy that is intact. I found that helped a lot. Keeping in mind at all times that it wasn't "permanent" so to speak--I could always go back to my original file.

    Best of luck, Becky! :D

  2. That list up there, about what each scene is supposed to accomplish, I find extremely useful. I think I'll copy it and keep it visible while I write.

  3. Thanks for the reminders and the encouragement, Kat!

    And Kessie, I'm glad the list looks helpful to you. I know it has been a good set of guideposts for me as I start to meander.

    And thank you both for dropping in today!


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