The Mathematics of Revision

I enjoy re-reading Stephen King’s On Writing every few years. Not only is his personal, humorous, accessible prose in the book a pleasure to read, but as I grow older and more experienced in the writing world, I find so much of his advice to be spot on. But there’s one particular tip in his book that seems to have struck a chord in my writing life. In the long run, the piece of advice he offers is very true…but it took me a few drafts of one of my novels to see the light, and to develop my own equation for coming up with a book that, at least to me, is complete and satisfying.

That piece of advice? Put on your mathematician's hat and get out your pencil, because this is one equation you’ll want to write down and remember, and then revise and make your own. 

Second Draft = First Draft – 10%

It’s so damn true, but only through the lens of your own writing process.

Stephen admits that he overwrites during his first draft. We don’t all do that, or at least I don’t. For me, I notice that my first drafts don’t have enough meat on them once I type THE END. When I finish a book (I’ve finished three novels and I have three others at various lengths of “not-quite-there-yet”), I set them aside for a while and think about them at a distance, something writers should do with everything they “finish”. When I go back, I often discover with my refreshed eyes that my novel is about This instead of That, and that These characters need to be developed while Those can go away. And then I start filling in the holes...add a chapter here, extend some dialogue there, beef it up, round it out, make it whole.

And in doing so, I found that my first couple of drafts look like this:

First Draft + 10% = Second Draft

Second Draft + 10% = Third Draft

My initial page count went from 400 to 450 to 500. I did a fourth draft only to tweak a few specific elements of suspense that I felt were lacking. And then after a dozen or so agency rejections, I realized I had a hefty first novel on my hands, something that doesn't always get an agent motor running unless it's in Pulitzer-worthy shape "as is" (and mine isn't).

Then I remembered Stephen’s equation. I had been adding, but what I really needed to do now was subtract. So I did. On a side note, another piece of advice I heard came from filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. In some DVD extras for something or other, they said that when they are editing, they often realize that the most fat can be trimmed from the first few parts of their films, and I realized that I can apply this to novels too. I went in, trimmed the fat form the first third of the book, and my fifth draft looks like this:

Fifth Draft = Fat Fourth Draft – 10%

And this is despite the fact that I actually added a full new first chapter to the novel. After that, I kept the phrases “cut the fat” and "be brutal" in my head, and was able to rid myself of the paragraphs and sentences, and in a few instances whole pages, that weren’t driving things forward or effectively developing characters or storylines. Passages that I have loved for years got the axe because it was the right thing to do for the sake of the story. It’s all about getting to the prime portions of the story, the best cuts, and throwing the gristle away.

So now my noir/crime novel, Reaper City, is a hair above 450 pages again, even with the new chapter, and I’m feeling good about that. Stephen King was right, in the long run. Once you’ve gotten your fatted calf of a novel on the butcher block, once you’ve said everything you can possibly say with a story, get out your razor strop and carving knife and get to work on that 10-15-20% that needs to go. You’ll feel so much better for it, and so will your eventual readers.

Well, that’s the hope, at least. Until then…Onward!