Thinking back to the writing of my first three novels, I must admit that the amount of words I cut in the editing and redrafting process were in the thousands, most likely, no more than that. The majority of the finished product in each case includes nearly all of the words I originally typed in my first drafts. Sure, there was a bit of cutting and massaging on further drafts, not to mention a lot of adding as well. But, to be honest, I held onto my words like a security blanket — I feared the backspace key like none other. How could I delete my hard work? Surely, each of those words were there for a reason from the start.
As my hunt for a literary agent continues, however, the lesson of when to cut has never been more clear to me than now.
The novel I am pitching was first written from two POVs, one being a woman behind bars for a murder she may or may not have actually committed; the other, a writer who puts her career on the line to prove her innocence. Over the past couple of months, several agents have offered constructive criticism that comes down to a single opinion: the half of the book from the writer’s perspective is not interesting and only serves to take the reader away from the story of the true protagonist, the imprisoned woman.
After hearing this feedback from multiple agencies that I respect, I had a choice to make: keep going with my original pitch and manuscript, and hope that some agent would think it was worthy for representation and publication, or take this advice to heart.
One agent specifically made me choose the latter. After a couple of emails in which she offered several pages of feedback on the manuscript as a whole, as well as explaining why she thought sticking with the primary protagonist would make the novel stronger, I knew there was no question in this.
And so, I started deleting. Almost 40,000 words of my novel. Cutting it in half.
I had thought this would be the most painful act of my writing career to-date, knowing how many hours, days, months it took to get all of that onto the page, perfecting those chapters. Instead, I felt a wave of relief as soon as they were gone.
Not only did I know instantly that it was the right move to make, but in the deletion of my words, I have never felt more like a writer. That may sound strange to some, but it’s the truth. To delete is to open up your work to even better words, words that weren’t just written to get your initial thoughts down, unperfected; but to get at the heart of the writing, the purpose you set out to accomplish from the beginning.
First drafts are first drafts for a reason. I’d venture to guess that many — if not most — novels published by the major publishing houses today have barely a glimmer of their first drafts in them. Writers must be willing to use that backspace key if they want to come away from their desks with the best versions of their stories to share with the world. No longer do I fear it — I embrace it, knowing that the next 40,000 words I write are going to be that much better for it.
- Queries Sent: 88
- Rejections: 35
- No Response: 17
- Partial Requests: 2
- Full Requests: 3