I overwrite my first drafts.
And not just the odd “there is” or wordy passive-voice construction. In the last two books of mine I’ve edited, I took out around ten thousands words—even after adding new scenes.
Probably like many post-film writers, I want readers to be able to see and feel everything that happens, so I often end up overpacking my sentences. I’ll use two adjectives when I only need one. I’ll say that she got in the car and closed the door. I’ll tell the reader how a character feels and then show them how that emotion plays out in the character’s body language.
I’m editing my portal fantasy novel now, and these days the process feels fairly normal, and I’m less hard on myself than I used to be that my prose needs so much work even after I’ve “written” the book. Of course I’m still rewriting sentences or paragraphs wholesale because I didn’t get them right the first time, or I’m tweaking a character dynamic, or I’m adding content outright. But for much of the material, I’m going through and deleting a word here, a phrase there, a sentence here.
It feels like a puzzle I get to solve, or that cliché about sculptors “finding” their pieces inside the raw block of marble. Often I did get a nice phrase or telling detail in the first draft, but then I muddied it with another phrase or detail that got in the way. It looked just right in the moment, but a few months away from the manuscript helps me get some distance and see the text more as one of my readers might.
Here’s a paragraph I edited Saturday. Hopefully it isn’t just me that the second version feels tighter and more evocative.
There was only one corridor to the carousel and exit, and she stepped down it quickly. People stood around the carousel in little pods, shifting their weight from foot to foot, now crossing their arms or folding their hands behind their backs. With just the one flight their luggage came quickly enough, and she hefted her suitcase off the carrousel and out onto the sidewalk. It was cold, the breeze blowing in the low sixties. She bounced up and down from her knees, rubbing her hand instinctively against the back of Aida’s carrier as she looked out across the quarter-full parking lot. She was looking for a silver Honda Civic, but now that she thought about it, she didn’t really know who Karen was or what she did or what she even looked like. Great planning, Maggie. This trip’s already been a raging success.
A single corridor leads to the carousel and exit, and she hurries down it. People gather around the carousel in clusters, shifting their weight from foot to foot, crossing their arms or folding their hands behind their backs. With just one flight the luggage appears quickly enough, and Maggie hefts her suitcase out onto the sidewalk. She zips her fleece to her chin, a breeze blowing in the low sixties, and bounces up and down from her knees, rocking Aida as she scans the quarter-full parking lot. She’s looking for a silver Honda CR-V—but does she really know who Karen is or what she even looks like? Great planning, Maggie.