Every word is not enough

As I come up for air from 7 months of intensive revision, I come up with some perspective.

Writers are told that every word must count. As I’m learning, that’s not enough.

It’s difficult in draft 1, 2, or even 3, to make every chapter count. But making every sequence of paragraphs count is even harder, and that’s not even par. Making every paragraph count, and then every sentence, well, that’s just getting started. It’s no wonder I’m on draft 8 of my book, 1300 hours in, 7 years later, 6 editors and counting, and just now am I starting to get to grips with how to economize on every sentence.

There’s a reason we kill our darlings. Not just because we have to be evil writers, but because almost is never good enough. It’s not putting out a book we bank on, but putting out a book that will be remembered. This is tough work!

Making every word count, even that isn’t enough. Every syllable matters sometimes, and beyond that, every single character. Visual clutter will lose readers. To make a book work, every single line of text must carry the reader from the beginning to end, so much so they’d rather lose sleep than stop reading.

I used to think there was a formula to this. Draft 6 = sentence perfection, draft 7 = word perfect, and so on. This is simply not so. Sometimes, to get every word just right, it requires insight gained from 8 takes, getting it wrong every time, but getting other things right, and then that insight, being there in that moment when you finally get it, exactly what this paragraph needs, and all the words that flow are gold.

Never give up. Your story might feel rough and you might feel like a crappy writer, but gold is just shiny rock when it’s trapped in ore. Some writers prefer to keep writing 1st drafts, in hope they’ll eventually get it right, or throw their hands in the air at draft 4 and say, “Good enough, time to publish.”

I don’t think there ever is good enough. A book can always be better. We publish so we can share, but there’s a reason authors release 2nd editions, and 3rd and 4th.

I also don’t think one should just revise for revision sake. I’m on the 8th draft of my book, but only because the 7th draft left an enormous loose end that I simply had to fix, and knew it wouldn’t come to me without a rest. Going over draft after draft without writing other things in between is like being a dog chasing your tail. Fixing words and typos does not improve a book. A new draft can be as radical as a new book, built from the previous mould, but that requires perspective gained from writing other things. Even as I write this, and know my book will be published soon in print, I know it needs a 9th draft, though that will come near the end of the year, when I go over it all again to record it as an audiobook. Less and less will change, of course (even now I am limited in changing anything to the story that would change the presently published ebook), but there will be those moments where silver is spotted, and thrown away for gold, or some debris slipped past my tires eyes (I’ve been working on the 8th draft since December, and so far have clocked close to 200 hours of labor).

I might sound like a perfectionist. I’d say no. I’m a novelist, and I’d think any other kindred spirit out there would relate. Art is never finished, only abandoned, and it always gets better, our vision honed sharper though it.

In a way, it is a live performance, the audience waiting. You never know what could happen next, what improvisation might surprise. At any rate, 8 drafts and 7 years of work will produce a pretty good book, and I’m excited to unveil it in print format soon.

Those on my newsletter, get excited! The big announcement of the date is coming. But meanwhile, let’s find out how that last Game of Thrones episode is going to play out.

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About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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3 Responses to Every word is not enough

  1. landofoyr says:

    well i believe that you are too harsh on yourself even after many times of editing and revisioning a writer will find something to change better make more relevant/beautiful/exciting. i think poetry needs to make every word counts as it is meant to be more intensive elegant and much smaller. a novel needs to be precise descriptive and leave a powerful image or feeling. there maybe sentences paragraphs or chapters that are not as vivid but they are necessary for the overall story. if we try to make every word count we wont finish ever even one story!

    • John Robin says:

      I would agree for quicker turnaround fiction. A fantasy epic, or literary novel, every single sentence must be poetry.

    • John Robin says:

      I should also add that I write and publish many novels in other genres under pen names and ghostwriting arrangements — so definitely this is all down to going with the turf for a specific novel. It’s a good balance for novels like this that takes years and will never be good enough — as I said, working on other drafts and other works in between are critical for perspective, or else indeed, the bigger, more difficult work like this will just get stilted and won’t improve.

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