Saturday, June 21, 2014

Words (2)

You can sum up everything an editor needs to know as two categories of knowledge _ what to take out, and what to leave in. Simple, except that getting close to perfection in both can take you on a long journey.

My novel "The Leather Man," now available at and, is a case in point. After 32 years of editing copy under extreme deadlines while covering a spectrum of events ranging from Olympic Games to the world premiere of "Twilight Zone: The Movie," I didn't anticipate any problems producing a trim, typo-free manuscript when I renewed work on the project I'd begun in 1974, my first full year with The Associated Press. I shelved the book quickly, though, because I found it virtually impossible to write creatively until four or five a.m. after night shifts in the Helena bureau. My office at home was an unheated cubbyhole in a rented house overlooking Last Chance Gulch. I didn't consider the location an omen back then, but it felt like it had been my last shot at success as an author by the time I quit the wire service.

As I suggested, I felt confident I could write a novel just as tightly as my old AP copy, but when I copyrighted "The Leather Man" in July 2008 it was as massive as continental drift. The version I sent to the Library of Congress had 628 pages containing 146,729 words. Nevertheless, I was proud of it and commenced trying to find an agent who could get my novel to a major publishing house. I sent out a dozen query letters and got around ten rejections. There would have been more, but a couple of fifteen-percenters didn't even bother to drop a snide note into my SASE'd return envelope (Who knows, maybe they needed a stamp? Agents must have financial crises, too).

I tried an alternate route later with a regional publisher who didn't require an agent, and that's when I heard that first-time authors shouldn't submit manuscripts longer than 300 pages. That was jarring _ I'd had bylines in Germany, Switzerland, Australia and Guam, among others, during my journalism career, and I didn't appreciate the "first-time" label, so I paused to consider my options. That produced a three-year gap in any progress toward publication, but I finally got back to editing in 2011. The first step was to examine every adjective and adverb in the book. Adverbs are tempting when a writer is looking to create a special effect, and most are redundant (I know, I have an adverb in the second paragraph. I used "virtually" because I worked on the book for about a month in the coldest part of a Montana winter before I gave up.)

I soon noticed that I was also finding ways to rewrite whole passages to shorten it, and on July 16, 2012, I stored a version that had been whittled down to 473 pages and 127,237 words. I immediately told all my loved ones that I had produced a real "final version."

I kept finding things I could improve, though, and on June 4, 2013, I stored a copy with 466 pages and 126,063 words. "Okay," I thought, "This is all that can be cut." By then I'd decided I was going to go with a vanity publisher, but I couldn't settle on one. It wasn't until February that I saw an ad that said Simon & Schuster was affiliated with Archway Publishing. That seemed promising, so I went with Archway. That could have been the final chapter, but once I got my sample edit I realized I had more work to do. I wasn't impressed with most of the suggested edits, but something clicked when I read the critique of the Prologue. I'd been thinking that my detailed story of landing a huge sturgeon out of the Snake River at Payette, Idaho, was too long, so I gulped and boiled four pages of fish story down to two sentences. Feeling empowered, I applied the same critical eye to everything else, and the words seemed to melt away. On resubmission, I sent Archway a final "final manuscript" with 308 pages and 99,123 words. My excitement was complete when the publication process produced a svelte novel with just 282 pages.

Now my only problem is wondering why I didn't just do the slash-and-burn editing at the start.


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