Gemology, or the power of negative numbers

Considering most writers I know say, “I managed 900 words today,” “1,500,” “two complete chapters,” I am producing negative numbers. The manuscript I’m working on is the first novel I wrote. And while I understand all the flaws that led to its rejection, I still have faith in the story. So many writers disparage their early work and I hope it’s because those stories were flawed. That’s why so many things I’ve begun have never seen daylight: no heart, no soul, no guts or cajones. But while I’ve completed other works I’m pleased with, I keep returning to this one because, at its heart, something begs to be unearthed.

It began its life as a 174,000 word behemoth, years in the making because I needed to learn how to spin epic fantasy. When it was done, the ending sucked. My wife said so. I was tired of writing and just wrapped it up. I’d slaved over a gourmet dinner, then threw handfuls onto plates saying, “There. It’s done. Now eat it.” Three attempts later, my wife assured me the ending worked, but insisted I was too verbose. Nonetheless, I sent it out.

Among the “not for us” rejection slips, I did receive some praise. “Your writing is good. It moves forward.” Less strong was, “It almost knocked me out.” Bunts. No homer. Further, those who spared the time to pen a note all pointed to word count. My baby needed slimming.

I reduced it to 147K, agonizing over the disappearance of so much hard work. Then, one agent said she’d give it a look if I’d pare it to 125 thousand. To no avail, I exceeded her request. The problem was the writing. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. Good doesn’t cut it.

So I studied. I studied Ernest Hemingway’s compact prose, Dean Koontz’s elegant turn of a phrase and Jacqueline Carey’s imagery knowing someday, once my skills improved, the gem within would emerge. Writing, however, takes time to mature. I shelved the project, wrote two more novels, changing genre in the process. All the while, the epic refused to remain sleeping, tugging at my consciousness, demanding my attention. It needed to be told. This is not how an inadequate story behaves.

Now, after some years’ absence, I’m back to it, tweaking and caressing. Allusion replaces declaration. One word replaces several. This weekend I stripped away more than 1,000 words by reappraising, deleting and rewriting. I believe those passages are clearer, leaner, but not sparse. They are stronger for it. I am not seeking terseness, but refinement.

When I’ve finished, I will read it again, aloud to insure it flows because the language must propel, not impede the story. I am compressing coal.

Raymond Bolton

3 responses to “Gemology, or the power of negative numbers

  1. Good for you Raymond!

    *laughs* My first fantasy was about that long (possibly longer). I took the advice of a very nice editor at Tor who mused that we’d probably have to make it into two books … and I knocked it into three.

    This was almost seven years ago though, because unlike your story I wasn’t quite ready to fix it (still not) but I was ready to move on. *grins* So I wrote several more books in the interim and I’m really glad I did. (trust me, I’d have gone crazy otherwise 😀 )

    At some point I’ll be ready to go back to that story with hacksaw in hand. Now that I’ve learned so much I feel like I really could make something awesome out of it. And I really want to. It’s my favorite story, my favorite characters which is really saying something considering how many are in my head!


  2. Raymond, you’ve discovered the hardest work of the novelist, revision. I always find the writing easy, but the revision painful. Spinning the tale is the fun, but chipping away to create the ‘jewel” as you’ve named it is always a struggle. Yet, when you have the finished product and you can say, “well done” it’s worth all the effort. It sounds like you are almost there.

  3. Katy, Deborah, thanks for your encouragement. Like you, K. B., this one is my favorite. It told itself to me, compelling me to come to terms with my vocation. It was/is magical. And yes, Deb, I’m nearly there. By the end of the month, I should be able to send it out as I return to my fourth novel, now three chapters deep. If only I could forego sleep, I could do everything that calls to me. Grrrrrrrrr.

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