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About this blog: This blog is a place for conversation about books. I post reviews of what I'm reading--lots of contemporary fiction, but also classics and the occasional work of narrative nonfiction. I am always looking for new books to read, so ...  (More)

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What to do when half your book is dead

Uploaded: Jan 19, 2016
(continued from "A Pantser Brought to Heel")

In an hour-long phone call, my editor discussed all the big problems with the first draft of Double Switch. Number one on his list was a gambit I’d cooked up where Adcock impersonates a Cuban player and walks around Dodger Stadium and even conducts interviews with fellow Cubans without detection. Sounds implausible, I know, but I thought it could work. Turns out it did not. Also on the list? Too little sex. And the case wasn’t presented quickly enough. And not enough mortal peril for Adcock.

The baseball scenes were good, though. And the tender moments Adcock shares with his teenage daughter. It wasn’t all bad.

I can do this, thought. I can crank up the peril. I can jack up the MPAA rating. The editor was right: this is hard-boiled detective fiction, and sex and violence are the principal attractions. I went through the manuscript marking chapters that needed to be cut or revised and identifying places to add fresh blood or sweat. The first draft was about 200 pages long. It took a couple of days. When I was finished, I tallied up the bill of changes and realized that I needed to rewrite nearly half the book.

Half the book. As in, half the book.

I had a professor in grad school, one of America’s most distinguished short-story writers, who once declared to our class that nothing gave her more pleasure than cutting 75% of a first draft. We all nodded like good pupils, but privately we were horrified. Most of us tend to overwrite our first drafts -- Stephen King says that he cuts 10% between the first and second drafts of his novels -- but 75%? What kind of pleasure can you possibly derive from knowing that three out of every four words you write will be deleted, that three of four hours you spend writing are wasted? It sounds like the topic of a conference panel featuring Buddha, Job, and Sisyphus.

My point is that it could have been worse. I was only proposing to scrap 50% of the draft.

When you’re writing a book, people are always asking you how it’s going. Those closest to you -- your spouse, for instance -- may even have the gall to ask when you plan to finish. These questions are posed with the best of intentions, but after I embarked on my 50% rewrite, they started to sound like needling. “It could be two weeks, or it could be two months!” I would snap. Truth was, I had no idea when I would finish. I had asked for (and received from my editor) a drop-dead date, something linked to the production schedule. I knew that if I missed that date, the book might not be published in 2016. Or worse, it might be published in the winter, when most of the country forgets about baseball.

What worried me more than the deadline was the potential for inconsistency. Half the second draft would consist of brand-new pages. Would readers see the seams?

In the end, I spent the spring and summer writing not only a second draft, but a third and a fourth and a fifth. Each successive draft contained a smaller proportion of new material, and with each go-around, the older material got stronger and stronger. I would love to be the kind of writer whose first drafts are so well-constructed that they require no further work, but I am not. Nor are 95% of the writers I know. The story I’m telling here is not unique. Maybe I’m ruining the mystique by sharing my experience, but my hope is that it interests readers to know that what they find between hard covers (or formatted so nicely on their Kindle) is probably not the entirety of what the author imagined. In the case of Double Switch, more than 50% of what I wrote will never be published.

Next time: Why I want you to forget you're reading.

Nick Taylor (as T.T. Monday) will appear in conversation with author Kris Calvin on Tuesday, March 1, at 7:30pm at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park. The event is free and open to the public.
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