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Hand Me the Knife

“A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.”

I came across this quote from Mark Twain this week and loved it. Being a writer has one big advantage  over other occupations: it is one of the few jobs where your age is largely immaterial. But even better than that, as the books pass by, you start to acquire an awesomely-tuned ability to cut the hell out of your prose. The way I write has changed so much since my first book. I have now developed a system where I have a detailed outline to guide me, but then I cut loose and write fast and furiously in wherever direction it takes me, knowing that I will be waiting with my editing knife in hand at the other end.

God bless computers and word processing. You can turn the messiest, most meandering manuscripts into a fast-paced, tight story by the time you’re done and no one will ever know your book once looked like something you dredged off the ocean bottom and pulled, dripping and covered with seaweed and slime, to the surface.  The best part of this approach? It’s fun. You get to go off on side adventures with your characters and wander through their world without worry, knowing that, in the end, your travels will lead you to those essential passages that need to stay in.

My system is pretty straightforward. I write when and where I can, given my schedule, but I always aim to have a complete draft ready at least a month before my manuscript is due and, preferably, two months before. I then scrub all prior knowledge of the book from my head and start at the beginning, reading it with draconian standards of pacing and slashing out whole gobs of words at a time. My word count feature helps a lot in that regard. I become the Queen of Hearts, shouting, “Off with its head!” on every page. At first, I was sure this approach would create holes in my narrative or cause sections to stick out like amputated stubs. But I quickly learned, thanks to  second, third and even fourth read-throughs, that this is not the case. It is possible to polish a manuscript with the same loving care you would bring to polishing a rock and, hopefully, in the end, come up with a finished product that is distilled, vibrant and full of color.

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