"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." —J. R. R. Tolkien

Monday, January 25, 2010

THE EMERALD TABLET - A Closer Look at Revisions

I'm rerunning this post from a month ago when I posted it over on The Spectacle.


First some basic stats on THE EMERALD TABLET:

Time to write first draft - 3 months
Length of first draft - 113K
Length of published novel - 66K
Time from first word written until publication - 4 years

First line of first draft - The night was bright, lit by a waxing gibbous moon.
(Okay, it pains me to put that down. And it came from a prologue, no less, long since deleted from the story.)

First line of published novel - When Benjamin Holt saw his mom disappear into a pinprick of light, he shouldn’t have been surprised; his life was already weird.

So I've talked a little bit about the revision process for THE EMERALD TABLET before, but I thought I'd go into a bit more detail.

After my manuscript was complete (I'd been through it a few times, I'd added all I thought needed added), it weighed in at a hefty 113K. Why hefty you might ask. There are books being published with that word count and more. But for the case of THE EMERALD TABLET, the words were unneeded. I'll summarize these unnecessary words in three line items:

  • Backstory

  • Incorrect Starting point

  • Far too many things "personal" to me

When I started the planning of the novel and the trilogy overall, everyone had a birthday and everyone had a family and there were friends of the family. And being a telegen in the real world, Benjamin had played many pranks in the past. And there was the prologue which dealt mainly with Benjamin's birth. And you know what? I needed to know all these things. But the reader didn't. And so I went through the manuscript many, many times, cutting everything I could possibly cut in regards to backstory. Benjamin's best friend's mother's occupation was just not pertinent. Neither was the girl next door who had a crush on Benjamin.

My advice: Cut all the backstory you possibly can. Ask yourself - does the reader really need to know this? If not, cut it.

Incorrect Starting Point:
Let's see, first there was the prologue (as mentioned above), but then the story started one sunny afternoon with Benjamin and Andy playing a prank as they so often did on sunny afternoons. And after the prank, we needed a chapter showing us a little more of Benjamin's talents. And then we needed to see the last day of school. And once Benjamin found out he was going to summer school, he needed to go shopping, because, you know, all boys are really excited about going shopping. And then he was off to summer school and the story got going. So yeah, in revisions, guess where the story ended up starting?

A couple fun comparisons:
Benjamin finds out he's going to summer school - first draft - page 54
Benjamin finds out he's going to summer school - final - page 2
Benjamin actually goes to summer school - first draft - page 74
Benjamin actually goes to summer school - final - page 13
Benjamin finds the Emerald Tablet - first draft - page 208
Benjamin finds the Emerald Tablet - final - page 54

My advice: Really think about the right starting point for your novel. Where does the action start? What drives the story forward. Find out and start there.

Far too many things "personal" to me:
I've heard it said that a first novel written is too close to the author. When we write, we want to put in all those things that are special to us. We want to write in the funny jokes we heard cracked in middle school. We want to portray our nemeses in all their rotten glory down to the dumb jean jackets they always wore.
We get our novel critiqued and someone says they love a certain line. And so we hold onto that line forever. And ever. We never want to cut it.
Here's the truth: Things that are funny in your memory will not necessarily be funny to others. They also may not fit in this particular story. But the good news is you have plenty of stories ahead of you. You will be able to use those jokes somewhere else. You will be able to set a scene at your favorite ice cream shop in a different novel. Benjamin Holt had no need to visit Scoops Ice Cream and play his favorite retro game Moonquest. Maybe you did, but give your character a break. Don't give him too much retro baggage that you loved.

My advice: If you are hesitant about cutting something, ask yourself the honesty question. Honestly, why are you holding onto a certain line? Does it add to the story or is it because it is a line that you love? Kill your darlings, right? Yes, kill them. Away. You seriously will never miss them.

(Just for fun, THE EMERALD TABLET in its beauteous first draft had bonsai trees, Aikido, crabapple flinging, and popcorn popping as gradable homework.)


PJ Hoover can laugh about her revisions now. And she thought her first draft was perfect :)


Karen said...

Great post (and it makes me feel so much better about my WIP)!

Lady Glamis said...

This was really helpful to read, PJ. I had a huge revelatory moment last night about MONARCH, which is now in it's second year...I have a ways to go.

I DID cut most of my back story out, and 9 months later I finally figured that cutting it wasn't the best thing to do. Now things are just confusing and muddled. I'm not sure I'll ever get this right.

Lindsey Himmler said...

This is so helpful. Thanks for sharing!

PJ Hoover said...

It makes me feel much better about mine, too, Karen! EMERALD came a long way, and so can anything!

Hey Michelle! Welcome back to the blog world. I find some backstory is necessary and needed, but it's conveying it so it doesn't feel like an info dump that makes the difference, right? And yes, you will get it right!

I'm glad it helped, Lindsey!

Thanks for visiting, all!

Amy Allgeyer Cook said...

This is such a great post!! It's really helpful to hear that even published novels don't spring out perfect on the first draft!

Kelly said...

This is an amazing post. How did you keep track of all that?
A reminder that revisions are worth all the time and hard work!!

PJ Hoover said...

I agree, Amy! Sometimes I read books and really wonder what they looked like in early draft form.

Thanks, Kelly! I keep drafts of the ms in all stages, so I compared the final to the first draft. yikes!

Lynn Colt said...

Ooh I love a stats/comparison post. Thanks for sharing :) I keep stats for my novels too; it's encouraging to look back and see how far I and my novels have come.

And wow--cutting 47k is huge! Clearly those pruning shears got a workout :) I'm always amazed when I reread one of my WIPs and find tons of things that could be cut, when before I could have sworn that ever word was essential. There's always more to learn, isn't there?

Kelly H-Y said...

Wow! That is so fascinating ... what a fantastic, informative post. Great examples!

PJ Hoover said...

You are so welcome, Lynn! Yes, there is always more to learn and always more that could be changed. I love feeling like I'm moving forward!

Thanks, Kelly! I'm glad you found it helpful!

Solvang Sherrie said...

I LOVE this post! It may be painful to you, but totally helpful for us as writers.

Miriam S. Forster said...

I love revision stories, they're so comforting! And I never once wondered what Benjamin's best friend's mother's occupation was, so I think that was a good cut.


Patty P said...

Fun post! I love the nuts and bolts of revisions!

PJ Hoover said...

Thanks, Sherrie! It's funny how it can be painful and amusing at the same time :)

LOL, Miriam! I'm glad you weren't fretting over that missing bit of info, because if so, I could send you my character worksheet.

Me, too. Thanks, Patty!

Natalie Aguirre said...

I first read this post on your other blog and am still amazed at how you were able to cut so much and tighten your wonderful story. I've had to cut a lot of words in my manuscript too. It's nice to know that we're not alone and it is possible by cutting to the essentials to make a story great.

Elana Johnson said...

This is a most excellent post! I love getting inside other author's heads about how they revise/write.

Thanks PJ!

Vonna said...

I have finally learned to leave out the stuff that's personal to me, but not important to the story. That can really bog things down.

PJ Hoover said...

Thanks, Natalie! I love looking back at the revisions I've made on things, especially when they've been so drastic.

Thank you, Elana! What if we could all see into each others' minds like the Borg? Now that would be cool!

Totally, Vonna. It's like once you start realizing what you don't need, almost anything could go :)

Heather Zundel said...

I love love love these revision analasi (is that the plural for 'analysis'?) :)

MG Higgins said...

Excellent advice! I'm struggling with the opening of my WIP right now. I'm opening-challenged. I never know when to start and how much backstory is necessary.

Christina Farley said...

I loved this! I'm working on cutting my MG right now. I've cut 15,000 words. It's so much better for it.

Really enjoyed these details.

Keri Mikulski said...

Nice post!

And what a cut.. Wow, I'm not going to complain anymore when I have to cut 4K. :)

Mitch Wallace said...

This is fascinating to read while making my way through THE EMERALD TABLET. I'm on page 201!

PJ Hoover said...

Thanks, Heather! And good question. I always the plural of tortoise should be torti.

Ditto, MG. That's what's I'm working on right now, too!

Way to go, Christina! 15K is awesome!

LOL, Keri! 4k can still be really hard. Big chunks need to go. Ouch!

Thanks for reading it, Mitch! just think, you'd just be getting to the part with The Emerald Tablet in it. That's really hard to believe.
Hope you enjoy!

Robyn Campbell said...

Hey Tricia, I thought my first draft was absolutely flawless. A textbook lesson in how to write a MG novel. Boy was I ever delusional. It SUCKED big time. But. It was a beginning. :-)

I love this lesson you have given us. Thank you for sharing.

Mitch Wallace said...

Finished reading your book earlier today P.J. Great job, my friend.

Just out of curiosity--how long did it take to get an agent? And how long did it take for your book to sell?

PJ Hoover said...

Ditto here, Robyn! I learned SO much!

Thank you, Mitch! You made my day!
I didn't get an agent until I'd written a book outside the trilogy. And for that book to sell, I'm still waiting :)
The trilogy sold about two years after I started writing it which was nice because at that point all three books were roughly done.


Mitch Wallace said...

I thought I'd mention that Benjamin and I share the same birthday--the first day of summer! I read that bit of info and couldn't help but smile. Do you think he shares my love for carnivorous plants as well?

I'm hoping to start reading the second book in your trilogy by the end of next month. I'll let you know when I do!

PJ Hoover said...

If he doesn't already share your love for carnivorous plants, Mitch, then he totally should. Because it's awesome!
Thanks so much, and take care!