Road to Publication: Killing Your Babies Part One

“Your reader will never miss what she doesn’t know was once there.”

I frequently told this to reporters in my news-editing career when I would trim their stories for length. Often what I was cutting was their favorite part–their baby, if you will–but it didn’t sufficiently inform the reader on the main point of the story.

One anecdote that didn't make it into Committed was the evening I spent in Birmingham's XXX; a charming man in a sports bar tried to convince me that he had once been a philosophy professor at Georgetown University, but he knew less about that part of Washington, D.C., than he did about Aristotelianism.
One anecdote that didn’t make it into Committed was the evening I spent in Birmingham’s historic district; a charming man in a sports bar tried to convince me that he had once been a philosophy professor at Georgetown University, but he knew little about that part of Washington, D.C., and even less about Aristotelianism.

I’ve been telling myself this phrase a lot lately as I’ve gone through the manuscript for Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road. To further trim the length of the book–both to reduce the price point when it is published in print in October, and also to better ensure all of the surviving material truly informs the reader–I’ve been committing a fair amount of infanticide.

Over the last two weeks I have reduced the manuscript page count of the book from 304 pages to 264, a 40-page reduction. This is on top of an 80-page reduction–from 384 pages to 304–I performed last summer.

After another run-through to ensure my edits haven’t screwed anything up, I’ll send the manuscript to the publisher for their first take at editing. Then, at some point, I will turn my attention to what was deleted. Why?

What has survived every round of edits is my sublime visit to Graceland.
What has survived every round of edits is my sublime visit to Graceland.

Well, another thing I used to tell reporters is that they should take those cut sections and add them to their “string,” a newsroom term that refers to odds and ends you pick up that don’t make a particular story. A skilled reporter can, on a slow day, tie those loose bits of string into a story. There likely are personal essays that can emerge from some of the material. I’ve already seen one story from my cross-country road trip published.

The manuscript is now about 30 percent thinner than it was when I “finished” it in my MFA program. In Part Two of this post, I’ll discuss some of the painful decisions I’ve had to make in keeping tight a book that covers five weeks, 6,000 miles, and forty-some artist interviews.

As an artist yourself, have you ever had to kill some of your creative babies?

29 thoughts on “Road to Publication: Killing Your Babies Part One

  1. I’ve definitely had to do massive slashing. My most recent novel, at about 80k words, I have a word doc of cut stuff that’s like 50k maybe? I massively rewrote ending and beginning and just random stuff here and there that adds up…


  2. Wow, that’s an even bigger percentage than mine!

    I will say that the “finished” manuscript that I wrote in my MFA program was far trimmer than my first draft. I sliced as I went, with guidance from advisors. I suspect if you went back and cobbled together first drafts of every chapter it would be somewhere in the range of 500 pages. I doubt I’m alone in overwriting with early drafts.


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  4. I submitted a draft to my editor last night that came in just under 90k. At one point in its journey, it was 167k. Slash and burn, baby. Slash and burn. I feel like a sculptor with a block of stone–editing and revising is just chipping away at that block until the figure comes through, with all of its beautiful contours.


    1. Slash and burn indeed! I’m sure your editor will appreciate the lighter work; kudos for your accomplishment.

      I like the sculptor metaphor. Sculptors say they can “see” the art inside the stone and their job is to carve down to it. I can see that with a manuscript as well; we keep going until we find it.


  5. Ironically, I had my ms. to the bone before I sent it to my editor, and he and the publisher felt it was too “thin.” After a second developmental edit, we added 10k, bring the book to just over 103k. Most of those additions were new scenes. Go figure…


    1. Go figure indeed! Well, my pass was done based on a conversation with the publisher; they haven’t actually engaged substantively in the manuscript since the initial acceptance and contract. So we’ll see if they think I took it down too much…


  6. suesm415

    When I revise, I always seem to replace anything I cut with new material. Sigh. Like you, I often save the deletions as what I call “compost.” It’s the same idea as a newsroom’s “strings.” Makes the editing feel less like murder.


  7. pjreece

    I call it my “shelf.” All the trims go on the shelf. One day, my publisher wanted to off load about a quarter of my (short) novel onto my shelf and I reacted in horror. He wasn’t the editor, so what was he doing wading in with his machete? I threatened to take my ms elsewhere, even after months of working with his fine editor. He left my story in shreds, it no longer added up. I was furious, almost in tears. He encouraged me to put back what I was passionate about, but I refused to work with his draft. I stuck with my draft (15th draft!) and considered his changes, only a scant few making it into the final. Sometimes you gotta draw a line in the sand.


    1. Kudos for sticking with it! You’ve hit on another topic, when the edits are offbase. (I’m sure my edits as a news editor were always spot-on.) Years ago I wrote a short opinion piece for The New Republic based on a pitch. I wrote the piece according to the pitch, but as it worked its way through the editing process it kept morphing until it was so far removed from what I wrote (and what I believed) that I was about to pull it. Then the top editor asked why I couldn’t have written a piece that said X; that turned out to be what I had originally submitted! All the previous edits were thrown out and they ran almost exactly what I had first written. πŸ™‚


  8. I feel your pain, Patrick. I’m in the process of baby-murdering as I plod through Draft Two of my current w-i-p (now there’s a sentence I probably won’t use in non-writerly company..!) It’s mainly character backstory info that, while I would love to include it, simply doesn’t ‘need’ to be there to move the story along.

    I have stored my little zombie-children though. Since my w-i-p is part one of a sci-fi trilogy I figured I could write up some of the character’s backstories as separate, stand-alone short stories/novellas, which I could give out later as freebie ‘bonus material’ to readers who like the main story. A little positive PR for the sequels never hurts, after all πŸ˜‰

    (This is, of course, assuming that a) I find an agent/publisher who wants it or b) if their reasons for NOT wanting it AREN’T “this is rubbish”-flavoured, I bite the bullet and self-publish it.)

    Good luck with your word-topiary, Patrick. Comfort food helps – I think you mentioned once before that yours was bacon, wasn’t it? And mine is chocolate – which reminds me… There is a sweet shop in my town that sells Bacon & Chocolate flavour lollipops. I KID YOU NOT. They also have Cheese & Onion and Roast Beef flavour ones too.


    1. You know, I’ve dabbled in fiction over the years but have never been published in it. But what many fiction authors tell me is that to make their worlds believable, they develop a tremendous amount of backstory that doesn’t make it into the published work, but informs the author as she writes and informs the reader in the sense that the world seems more believable.

      Ah yes, bacon, my obsession (and something I’m trying to avoid right now as I look to drop a little weight before any possible book tour!). A writer friend once gave me chocolate-covered bacon because she knew of my bacon obsession; the combo did not work for me. πŸ™‚


  9. I tend to do a Stephen King and aim at a ten percent reduction…. which is a lot for me as I write short stories and I’m used to including only those words that push the story forward.


    1. I hear you on length, Terry. It is harder at times when it’s shorter. I have to say, however, I get a bit of a rush at taking something from, say, 1,300 words to 800, because I can usually do so with my initial wordy drafts without slicing out any substance; you can actually see the lean meat left over. Satisfying.


  10. Whoa… that’s some major trimming, Patrick. But, like the others, I’ve been there, too. I slashed 40,000 words from my WIP… It was pain and agony, BUT the end result in better. I liked reading about your mentoring to other journalists. Been there, too! πŸ˜‰


    1. You’ve definitely been there, Melissa! Your figure of 40K made me go back and look at what I’ve cut overall, and it is about 40,000 words. This round was about 15K of that. But yes, it’s both painful and satisfying.


  11. Cutting is the worst! It’s soooo difficult. I’m happy to be done with that (for the moment) and bet you are too. 40K is a LOT of stuff, Patrick. You’re doing great if you can get rid of all that and still feel the manuscript hasn’t suffered.


    1. Hi Cynthia! So this round was 40 manuscript pages, but as I just noted with our mutual friend Melissa above, it does turn out to be about 40,000 words since last summer. As to suffering, well, I’ve suffered a bit and miss some of the things that are gone. I’ll be blogging about that in Part Two! πŸ™‚


  12. Patrick, I’ve not yet written at length like this yet (well, I wrote a novel, but it won’t become anything at this point), but I have definitely cut some stuff from picture books, etc. that was good, but simply not necessary. I know there will be a lot more of that coming in the future!

    Meanwhile, I gleaned some great stuff from the comments, too! “Sculpting.” “Compost.” “Shelf.” “Zombie children.” lol Everyone, pat yourselves on the back for being such successful “baby killers”!


    1. Is it any surprise writers have great analogies? πŸ™‚

      I think the key is the percentage cut. Most of my writing career has been pieces in the neighborhood of 800 words. My first draft often is in the 1,400 range. Getting to 800 is immensely satisfying, and always improves the work. I would assume it is true for picture books as well.


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  14. Kill them? Not quite–I allow them all to simmer along on the back burner. Those little bits of string usually do turn into some of my best posts/essays/pieces. My problem is the way that they tend to insert themselves, like a blurt from the blue, into something else that I’m writing. It is usually while I’m writing something that I “have to” finish with a deadline. Once I’ve come to the time for going back and editing, I remove the darling passage and set it aside with care, In the end, I tend to feel much better about my treatment of both works. Both, being the one I want to write with focus (that guest post), and the one that needs to be coddled (my baby, the darling I don’t want to kill) that needs to be nurtured to become fully grown and something to make Mom proud!


    1. Thanks for sharing your process. That’s pretty interesting, the reinsertion process. They clearly aren’t “killed” in that context. I would say that from my experience, some of those babies just aren’t destined to mature someday. They may have served their purpose in advancing my skill as a writer and creative thinker, but there will always be new babies that come along that could be more promising. I’d like to write another thirty years or so, though, so we’ll see!

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