First Words

March 30th, 2012

The work of heavy revision continues apace.  The first thing I’ve done is to boil down all my various plans, notes, scrag-ends of leftover dialogue or ideas cut as I’ve gone along, throw most of it away and keep anything that looked like it might still be useful, combined it with recommendations and observations from my editor and readers, thought about themes, characters, settings, plot points, and etc. that I need to include or further attend to, and boiled it all down into a single document that attempts to present to me in a (roughly) comprehensible form all the stuff I already know I still need to do to this book.  There’s quite a lot there.

The heaviest lifting (as is often the case) needs doing at the start.  The start is probably the most important part of your book.  You need to introduce central characters, something of their past and personality, their relationships with others, you need to lay out something of the nature of the setting, perhaps set the plot rolling, but above all you need to do all this in a way that’s quick, sharp, interesting.  Perhaps you need small surprises, little mysteries, setup questions to draw the reader on.  Perhaps you need some early action to grab the scruff of the neck.  Whatever the method, you need to involve the reader and keep them reading.  After all, a shitty ending might leave someone with a sour taste, but a book abandoned after five pages is going to leave an even sourer one.

A lot of different concerns to juggle, then.  The front is also likely to be the bit your wrote first, and therefore the bit that’s sloppiest, least confident, and furthest from your final conception of what the book is about and the characters are like.  Chances are it’s full of dead ends and asides that no longer work – bits of history that aren’t important, ideas set up that never paid off, unnecessary characters and events that can be safely excised.  A lot of this is about cutting.  A lot is about replacing the fuzzy with the sharp, the irrelevant with the relevant, about making the whole thing to the point.

So I’ve revised the first two chapters now.  The first wasn’t so bad, my conception of the character whose point of view it’s written from hasn’t changed too much during the writing, so it was mainly about cutting and adding in a few mentions of things that will be needed later.  Nonetheless the chapter’s gone from 5,500 words to 4,900, and feels a whole lot sweeter, tighter, and more to the point.  That was mostly amalgamating and boiling down a few paragraphs of description that did the same thing, cutting one interlude that just wasn’t necessary in any way, and seriously tightening a very long and sloppy conversation.  It may well need to be tightened further, but it’s a good start.  The rule I try to follow is – if you have your doubts about something, cut.  Or at least find a way to do much faster.  There’s always a temptation to leave alone, to say that’s good enough.  You need to come at it more like a jackhammer than a scalpel at this stage.  There’ll be plenty of work for the scalpel later.

The second chapter needed much more fundamental work.  The point of view for this one has given me a lot more trouble, and my whole concept for the character had shifted quite a lot during the writing of the book.  As a result it needed some proper rewriting, which is something I don’t often do.  In essence I cut half the chapter altogether and replaced it with a much tighter, simpler opening, decided to introduce fewer characters and leave some of them until later so the reader has a bit less information flying at them right off.  Then I heavily, heavily cut a long and involved sequence of conversation.  Hard to believe, looking at it now, that I could have gone over it once and thought, yeah, good enough, because a lot of it seemed very unnecessary.  I think I was working too hard to give the point of view character a complex background, rather than just throwing the reader in, letting them work it out from relevant glimpses.  Trying to  smash a personality into this character through force rather than just allowing one to appear through action and dialogue and subtle interjections of thought and style (as subtle as I get, at least).  Anyway, end result, the chapter’s gone from 6,900 words (I shudder) to 4,500, which is a massive cut and will hopefully make this chapter much less of a lumpen blob clogging up my first part.  Very important to get this chapter right, and probably a lot still to do looking at this character’s arc as a whole, but I feel good for doing that much.  Like cleaning out that hideous cupboard full of old junk that you wince every time you glance at, and seeing all the crap vanish into a skip.



Posted in process by Joe Abercrombie on March 30th, 2012.

27 comments so far

  • As someone who wouldn’t know where to begin, I love these posts about the craft of writing a novel. In some ways it’s almost as interesting as reading the novel itself. Mostly though I’m just excited to see the end result of all this hard work.

  • Phil Norris says:

    2,400 cut from one chapter! That’s a decent short story!

  • xan perillan says:

    So much cutting and revising and rethinking. Gods, I´m scared now.
    And you said the Winds of Winter was coming out …when?

  • James says:

    Interesting read Joe. Is this how it usually goes cutting vast swathes from each chapter? Will the finished product be shorter than originally planned? Or do the bits that you end up adding in balance it out.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    These particular words weren’t a decent anything, alas, but you’re right there were quite a lot of ’em.

    No, not how it usually goes. Certainly not how I imagine it will go for parts 4 and 5 which as written are reasonably tight I think. I look for cuts, but generally it’s minor tightening and mostly made up for by things I add. There will be later passes in which I’m attending to things like character and setting where I may well be adding more than I take out, and trying to substitute telling details for more repetitive and banal stuff. Very rarely do I remove whole scenes or sequences or add new ones. I’m not one of those writers who has files full of deleted scenes. Off the top of my head, only the front of the Blade Itself was rewritten to that degree, and it was maybe a couple of sequences cut and a new first chapter. The first part of Best Served Cold also needed pretty heavy work along similar lines to this. The heaviest cutting will tend to be at the start, where I might have rethought things a little since writing it. Particularly true of this book. So there’ll be some balancing out with stuff added, but also probably some further tightening in later rounds of revision. There’s no particularly strict plan for length, it doesn’t matter that much how long the product is, within reason. Roughly speaking, all three of these standalones I’ve been aiming towards slightly shorter books than the First Law ones, somewhere in the 150-175,000 word range. That was the treatment submitted to the publisher (not that that is in any sense a binding document). With Best Served Cold I misjudged pretty badly, it was about 225,000, my second longest book. The Heroes ended up about 200,000. With Red Country it looks like I will finally bring it in around 170,000. It’ll be my shortest book to date. But still well over three Great Gatsbys…

  • Murray says:

    Joe, just wondering do you keep a lot of backups as you progress? I mean it sounds like a lot of cutting! So do you have the text that’s been cut available if you then want to double check it or put something back?

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Oh yeah. I tend to keep each chapter individually as a different file. Once I’ve finished a part, I revise them together, then combine them into a single file, send that off to my editor and readers for comments, then later continue to work on the individual chapters. So I have old drafts on a part by part basis if I need to refer back. I very rarely do, though.

    If it seems like there may be something of value in a chunk I’m cutting, though, a good couple of lines of dialogue or an idea I might be able to use, I tend to pluck it out and stick it next to a whole load of similar lines and stuff that I might incorporate elsewhere if I find a suitable place.

  • david says:

    Maybe the reason your books are so good is beacuse you are brutally self-conscious about the writing. I wonder what a dance with dragons would have been like if grrm was as honest with himself as you seem to be.

  • Michael says:

    Joe – thanks for sharing this. I was curious to know the role of your third party input, your editor and test guinea pigs – is it just general feedabck they offer – tight, weak, too long etc, or do they actually suggest plot points or storyline amendments. And if they do are you generally receptive or is it a ‘my baby’ kind of thing?

  • Hawkeye says:

    Joe, have you thought of keeping everything and putting it back how it was for a “author’s cut” version of the e-book? For those of us that want to read the extended version? Because I can’t believe anything you write would be rubbish:)

  • Adam says:

    You know Joe, I’m actually rather surprised at how much progress you’ve made when looking at all the other activities you’ve blogged on.

    Just by the sound of it, it seems like this is a story that was burning a hole in you and had to get written out without any significant loss for words.

    How would you compare writing this one in terms of ideas to, say, any of the first trilogy books?

  • Marniy Jones says:

    Hi Joe,
    How many beta readers do you have? I’m also curious about what type of feedback they supply.
    Interesting stuff. Thanks for posting about your writing process. I’m looking forward to reading the end result.

  • Chris says:

    Thanks for doing this, Joe.

    I’ve been writing the first draft of my novel for a few months now and… well, it has been the most punishing thing I’ve ever done. Talk about self doubt. I have to keep myself from reading whatever I wrote the week before or I’ll end up editing forever.

    I find the characters are easy to write — but the plot? Not so much. I have all sorts of doubts about that. It makes sense to me, but that doesn’t mean too much, does it?

    Though, even if it is a miserable pile of failure, I still can’t wait to read it straight through when I finish. 75,000 words so far, about 50,000 more to go, I wager…

  • Thaddeus says:

    It’s always interesting to hear the nuts and bolts stuff, Mr. Abercrombie, and good to know you’re making swift progress.

    Leaving Mr. Abercrombie’s nuts alone; Chris, I’ve finished a book (yet to be published) and the self-doubt probably comes to every writer. Bear in mind there’ll probably be quite a few redrafts to smooth out rough edges, knock off irrelevant tangents and add in characterisation and tie the plot together. Best of luck finishing the first draft 🙂

  • Tim H says:

    Really looking foward to this book. I’ve spent the past few weeks burning through several must-read works of fantasy and SF, and at some point it dawned on me how truly hard writers must work to give us these morsels of pleasure we consume in a weekend for the price of a fast-food meal. Thanks, Joe.

  • So much fun to read these updates!
    Looking forward to more stuff from you, I honestly hope you live to be a healthy two-hundred and eight years with a new book very fortnight 😉

  • nekro-kun says:

    I think, that the Blade Itself had perfect start – north, shanka, inquisitor, etc. And BSC i abandon after 4-5 pages at the first time, and only after reading good reviews and the Heroes, i started reading it again.

  • James says:

    Thanks for the reply Joe, interesting to read.

    I might just buy this book when it comes out now. 😉

  • Alex says:

    Hey Joe, looking foward to this book very much. I discovered your books about six weeks ago and have read all of them since then. As a full time bookseller I hope there will be proofs soon ; ).

  • AntMac says:

    I second the love for these confidental windows on your style that you let us peek through, it is very kind in you Sir. I have had a lot of enjoyment re-reading your work knowing it as “work” that you have done with struggle and thoughtful effort, it makes it much more enjoyable.

  • Tim says:

    I’ll chime in and say that I am fascinated by this insight into the craft of writing. I am not a writer but I do a lot of writing and revising: there is a terrible thrill when you tighten up a sentence, rip the fat off a paragraph. It is like removing a thick, crusty scab to reveal clean, new skin.

    Do you actually do any teaching or lead workshops? You are very skilled at making the work of writing concrete and understandable: I think it would be valuable for aspiring writers.

  • AO says:

    I also found this interesting, despite the fact that I’m not, and have no plans to be, a writer. Thanks for the update.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Michael, Marniy,
    I’ll talk about the readers in another post, I think.

    I think people sometimes get the wrong idea about editing, that the words cut are somehow wonderfully polished and complete nuggets of joy that they’ll now never get to see. They really aren’t (not in my case, anyway). They’re repetition, clunky phrasing, unnecessary asides in general. If I put this stuff back you wouldn’t have a deeper, wider book, just a longer, flabbier, more repetitive and less exciting one. A director’s cut is when the director puts back things they felt they were forced to remove. I’ve never been forced to remove anything. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, sure, and I’ve listened to a lot of good advice and suggestions, but every book is exactly as I chose to do it.

    Never done any teaching, no.

    Probably won’t be proofs this time around, sadly. The turnaround is too quick. There’ll be some early production copies, maybe.

  • Ron Ward says:

    Absolutely enthralled, this post is how I envision a dream trip to _____Con. I wander into a bar down the street form the convention center. Overcome by the sheer banality of the last panel. There sits Joe being served a second pint. A notebook on the table. I boldly sit down and ask how’s the writing going. A conversation like this would emerge.
    These kinds of posts are invigorating.

    Is this “a single document that attempts to present to me in a (roughly) comprehensible form all the stuff I already know I still need to do to this book.” an excel type document or more like a page of scribbled notes in a spiral notebook.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    I work on Word. Just out of long habit, really. It’s a long document split into various sections, one for each part of the book with specific bits of plot I need to attend to, another broken up into every significant character with lines of dialogue or relevant description which are relevant to them. Then yet another with particular themes and plot points that need generally bearing in mind. At this stage I’m not paying a lot of attention to it – currently I’m doing more heavy lifting stuff and general cutting, just getting my head around the first part. Later I’ll refer to it a bit more closely.

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