Periscope Depth

caught the early plane back to London, fifty acorns tied in a sack

Still editing the same novel.

I got to talk to Tess Gerritsen about this project when I was at Muse and the Marketplace. I felt so self-conscious during the whole conversation that I became at least three separate people. But the topic of the seminar she’d given was How You Know If You Have A Good Idea, and she’d solicited suggestions from the audience. So I had an in.

She listened to the concept, asked a follow-up question, then nodded. “There’s something there,” she said. “How many words is it?”

“Fifty-five thousand.”

She winced. “Too short. You need a subplot.”

And it’s true that fifty-five thousand words is too short for a commercial novel. Unless my name is enough to sell a book (and it isn’t), almost no publishing houses would be interested. The fixed costs are such that it’s not worth their time.

(As a tangent, this is also an argument for breaking away from traditional publishing arrangements. People still read novels that are shorter than seventy thousand words. The thin paperbacks that you find in used book stores and that you used to find in wire racks in drug stores? Between 50K and 60K. So there’s demand for it. Just not a demand a big publishing house can profitably satisfy)

When I started editing this draft, I made note of places where I could add more detail. I tend to write few, if any, descriptions in a rough draft. Why do I need to describe what a bar looks like? I think. It’s a bar! There’s beer and walls and a TV with the game on. But normal people need concrete details to give them a sense of immersion. So I make notes with red pen in the margins.

I also realized that my heroine plunges into the mystery at reckless speed. This is good for pacing, but it means what she does for a living gets short shrift. While I didn’t pull a complete Homer Simpson on the first draft (“do you even have a job anymore?”), I saw that I could add more detail here. So more notes.

As a result, the editing process has meant a lot of writing. The 53,000 words (I fudged a little for Gerritsen) are already 59,000. And I’m a third of the way through the manuscript. By the time I’m finished, I could break 70K easy.

This wouldn’t bother me if I hadn’t gone from the rough draft to the second draft by taking so many words out. I pared it down from 58K to 53K. Now I have to bump it back up to 70K. Every time I sit at the computer, a constant refrain of do you even know what you’re doing, do you even know what you’re doing hums in my skull.

Not that reverting to the rough draft would help me. All the words I took out in the first draft needed to go. They were stale crust. They were the result of writing like I talk, rather than writing what I wanted to say.

Editing your novel doesn’t make it perfect. Nothing makes a novel perfect. There’s no such thing as a perfect novel. There’s “not done yet” and “good enough for deadline.” The problem with a novel on spec is that no one’s given me a deadline. So I can rush out a half-baked product or I can tinker with it until I’m dead and leave it for my heirs to deal with.

The neuroses that editing induces are mild, and they’re nothing a tall gin and tonic can’t address. Add plenty of ice; garnish with lime to taste.

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