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Guest Blog – Cutting Down to Size

By Susan Sloate

     You would think that cutting your manuscript was relatively easy. I mean, compared to getting the words down on paper in the first place, cutting what’s already there should be a snap. Didn’t Michelangelo say airily, “I just took a chisel and cut away everything that wasn’t David”?

     Well, that sounds simple enough. You drop an extraneous phrase here, a flabby sentence there—and suddenly your manuscript is ten pages shorter and you’re all ready for the next step.  Nothing to it, right?

     Uh—wrong.

     I hadn’t realized how much I needed to do it until I began a much-needed revision this summer on FORWARD TO CAMELOT, the 2003 time-travel thriller I co-authored with Kevin Finn. We had both loved the book as written, but with a 50th-anniversary edition about to be published (commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, which is the subject of our novel), we felt it was a good time to fix some of the usage and grammar errors that had slipped by us the first time, and especially to tweak a couple of small historical points that had bothered me for ten years.

     That was the intention. Make sure the quotation marks are facing the right way, check the history and turn in the book to our publisher.

     Then Kevin and I began to look at what we had, and we realized there were other issues we wanted to address. What started as a simple fix became a much more complex, line-by-line scrutiny, and what we were eventually looking for were the words, sentences and even paragraphs we could cut to bring down the length. Our publisher, Drake Valley Press, explained gently that a book as long as the original version (almost 500 printed pages) would cost so much that we might not see any profit on it at all in paperback, and it could affect eBook sales as well. But if we could significantly reduce the word count, we would do a lot better. And besides, the narrative really did have its flabby moments. Keep the story, by all means—just make it, you know, a lot shorter and simpler.

     I began to feel as though I had an “Everything Must Go!” sign on my computer screen.

     While I began the historical fixes, Kevin began streamlining the manuscript, pulling out sections he felt could safely be cut while maintaining the pace, the plot and the flavor of the original. While we both resisted cutting entire scenes—we cut only one full scene, and that one only reluctantly—there were certain scenes that we also knew we wanted to rewrite; we hadn’t got them right in 2003 and we had another chance now.

     But when I finally saw Kevin’s long, meticulous (did I mention long?) document listing all the changes—which ran about 30 pages—I almost cried. Then began the bargain-with-your-partner phone calls: “Look, we have to keep the hunt scene at the end.”

     “But it’s ten pages; that’s way too long.”

     “Okay, okay. I’ll cut it way down, as long as I can keep the gist of it.”

     “You can have the gist. Just get rid of the gristle!”

     Thus began the slash-and-burn portion of the rewrite, where I began incorporating Kevin’s notes. (“Did you realize you write everything twice?” he asked me. “If you could cut it down to one telling, we could really cut through this manuscript.” By this time the word ‘cut’ or ‘slash’ had a queasy effect on me.)

     We argued, and we both agreed to accept less than what we wanted. Kevin let me keep almost all the scenes intact, as far as intent; I swallowed a good deal of bile and pride and slashed away at anything that wasn’t strictly necessary.

     Within a couple of weeks we’d brought down the 488-page original manuscript to 382 pages, cutting 100 pages (25,000 words) in the process. It was still the longest book either of us had ever written, but it was no longer a project you had to schedule in order to read. The word count was in the ballpark.

     Did I enjoy the process? Most of it, no. But on some level I did like examining a paragraph and finding a way to cut straight to the heart of what we were trying to say. It’s a process writers need to go through all the time—understand what we want to say and say it as effectively—and as simply—as we can. We can never afford to forget that part of our process, especially writers who become very successful, and whose editors then seem to somehow mysteriously evaporate (or more likely, are intimidated or overpowered by the author at that point).

     I know I’ll do the same process from now on: I’ll look for stuff I’ve said twice and hack away at it, along with everything else the reader doesn’t absolutely need to know.

     And maybe that snob Michelangelo was right: when you finish slashing with your machete, what you end up with looks a lot less like a flabby ‘before’ picture and a lot more like that glistening David in marble.

     That alone makes it worthwhile.

     Good luck with your own machete …

WHERE WERE YOU THE DAY KENNEDY WAS SAVED

On the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination comes a new edition of the extraordinary time-travel thriller first published in 2003, now extensively revised and re-edited, and with a new Afterword from the authors.
On November 22, 1963, just hours after President Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President aboard Air Force One using JFK’s own Bible. Immediately afterward, the Bible disappeared. It has never been recovered. Today, its value would be beyond price
In the year 2000, actress Cady Cuyler is recruited to return to 1963 for this Bible—while also discovering why her father disappeared in the same city, on the same tragic day. Finding frightening links between them will lead Cady to a far more perilous mission: to somehow prevent the President’s murder, with one unlikely ally: an ex-Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald.
Forward to Camelot: 50th Anniversary Edition brings together an unlikely trio: a gallant president, the young patriot who risks his own life to save him, and the woman who knows their future, who is desperate to save them both.
 
History CAN be altered …
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SUSAN SLOATE is the author of 20 previous books, including the recent bestseller Stealing Fire and Realizing You (with Ron Doades), for which she invented a new genre: the self-help novel. The original 2003 edition of Forward to Camelot became a #6 Amazon bestseller, took honors in three literary competitions and was optioned by a Hollywood company for film production.
Susan has also written young-adult fiction and non-fiction, including the children’s biography Ray Charles: Find Another Way!, which won the silver medal in the 2007 Children’s Moonbeam Awards. Mysteries Unwrapped: The Secrets of Alcatraz led to her 2009 appearance on the TV series MysteryQuest on The History Channel. Amelia Earhart: Challenging the Skies is a perennial young-adult Amazon bestseller. She has also been a sportswriter and a screenwriter, managed two recent political campaigns and founded an author’s festival in her hometown outside Charleston, SC.
After beginning his career as a television news and sports writer-producer, KEVIN FINN moved on to screenwriting and has authored more than a dozen screenplays. He is a freelance script analyst and has worked for the prestigious American Film Institute Writer’s Workshop Program. He now produces promotional trailers, independent film projects including the 2012 documentary SETTING THE STAGE: BEHIND THE SCENES WITH THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, and local content for Princeton Community Television.
His next novel, Banners Over Brooklyn, will be released in 2014.
For updates and more information about Forward to Camelot: 50th Anniversary Edition, please visit http://susansloate.com.
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