Sunday, June 22, 2008

Putter-inners and Taker-outers

Yeah, yeah, I know the formula:

Final Draft = First Draft – 10% (or even 20%).

Heard it from Gordon Lish first, and then Stephen Koch, and then Stephen King, and I’m sure if I looked I could find it plenty of other places, probably even from additional Stephens.

Unfortunately, I seem to be a putter-inner. It isn’t that I write lean, spare prose that needs flesh added to its poor bones. Far from it. I tend to digress so much I might be Tristram Shandy’s love child, had he managed to get around to it.

But, when editing time comes a-knocking, the problem doesn’t seem to be that I have written too much, but rather that there are things that need additional complication or explication. I do cut some in the second draft…and after I do so, people come back to me and say--as if we're in a poorly written movie scene about a relationship breakup--that there seems to be something missing. I add things back; I elaborate, I slap in new chapters, I put back scenes and chapters I had previously cut.

I’m not talking about a skinny puppy here to begin with. Shock and Awe ran 105,000 words in first draft; after critiques, it stretched to 116,000 words; and after I worked through it with the estimable Will Atkins, it ended up somewhere around 121,000 words.

And now I’m going through the same process with two other novels. It’s not because I don’t cut anything; it’s just that the net effect is for my novels to grow in every revision.

What's up with that, huh?

(Nota bene transatlanticum: What is called "take away" in the UK is called "take out" to the left of Bermuda. If you prefer, I suppose the title of this post can be translated to "Putter-here-ers and Take-awayers")

14 comments:

Usman said...

What you do sounds familiar. I am in the process of complicating things, if only i knew how. is there a formula for that?

Matt Curran said...

Hi, David

Len Tyler said roughly the same thing to me when we met in London earlier this year. And I don't think it's a bad thing either - whatever works.

I usually write a bare-boned 1st draft (80% of the final count) followed by a bloated 2nd draft (120% of the final count) while the final draft is usually the trimmed streamlined version of the third draft. For The Hoard of Mhorrer in meant going from 120,000 words to 180,000 and then finally to 145,000 words.

I can see the same happening to The Black Hours too...

Alis said...

I've had the same experience - cutting things out which then need to be put back. Not always in the same place though...

Sam Taylor said...

This is actually what I'm going through with my novel right now. First draft I wrote was kind of a bare-bones sketch. I then tried the 10% solution, and it got even worse (but, to be fair, at that time I didn't realize how sparse it was already). So now I'm going back and putting flesh on the beast.

However, I have to say that this isn't always how it works -- my short stories can be too sparse or too fat by yards either way. And there's even the all-too-rare occurrence where I get it fairly close to right the first time, and all I have to worry about is a few tangled sentences. (If I can do taht with a novel one day, boy, that would be great.)

Jen Ster said...

If you add, then subtract, then add some more, and then take away even more than that, and then end up with roughly the same amount of text that you started out with, are you doing something right? Cuz that's how it tends to go with me. And it's ALWAYS too darn long.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Usman--

Yeah, I have a formula for complicating things: anything your protagonist does shouldn't work at least twice, and should make things even worse.

It's a fairy-tale thing.

David Isaak said...

Matt--

Up to 180,000 before coming down to 145,000? Epic!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Maybe I should try moving things around...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

To tell the truth, I'm amazed anyone ever gets a short story right. I can state with assurance that I never have done so.

There's some pretty successful writers--Richard Prather and Patricia Wood, to name two who probably have never appeared in a sentence together before--who outline, and then sketch in the scenes, and then add in dialogue, and then add in detail. So the bones to flesh to nerves to skin thing seems to work for some people. I wouldn't know where to start.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

Well, it sounds as though you were doing something right. At least you knew how long your book was supposed to be. More than I can claim.

Tim Stretton said...

I tend to end up putting in more than I take out. I have--if I'm lucky--felicitous ideas 80% of the way through which then need foreshadowing.

On the other hand, if I write infelicitous crap 80% of the way through, I don't go back out and take out all the stuff which led up to it...

Creative A said...

This has never been a problem for me. I have a different problem, the one where I write a perfectly sized draft, and then cut out about 5 - 10k, and am *then* left to fill it back up. The horror.

I like what you said about complications. Come to think of it, that is very true.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

"Infelicitous crap." Excellent. I'm well acquainted with it in my own work, but I've always needed a technical term for it.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Creative--

It's amazing how much wisdom is hidden in "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."