Dude, Your First Draft is Way, Way, Way Too Long

Gah! Not good, Dostoyevsky!

Gah! Not good, Dostoyevsky!

You’ve spent the better part of a decade laboring over handwritten notes, turning them into an epic narrative that saw it outlive three different personal computers, four jobs, three apartments, six girlfriends, two cars, and eighteen fish. You snuck off on lunch breaks to work on it, zoned out of conference calls, paid no attention while your roommates watched all of Breaking Bad, and now where are you? You’re 175,000 words completed, and the only thing that can be said is your book is way, way too long.

What the hell were you thinking? Did you really need 500 pages to tell the story of some sad consignment store owner looking for love and meaning in his humdrum Grand Rapids life? And no, it doesn’t matter if its great, it really doesn’t. You’re not Jonathan Franzen, and you will never get the opportunity to tell Oprah to go screw herself. You wrote this goddamn opera of commerce and innuendo, and you want to slay forests to get it five inches from the faces of housewives the world over, right? Well then it’s time to make with the editing, Charlie, and don’t be a pussy about it.

Who’s the enemy? The reader? You want to punish that poor son of a bitch by railroading them through your 150 page Upper Peninsula digression which culminates with your main character back exactly where he began. Yeah it’s fun to read, but that section is a book unto itself! And what does it accomplish? Squat!

No, the enemy is all those pages, all those words, all of that fucking exposition. I’m glad we now know every minute detail about this guy’s puberty and awkward high school career and that dazzling three semesters he spent at Michigan State, but your character is 39, it takes place when he’s 39, and none of the plot has any bearing on his time spent nailing theater nerds. Sure, that stage manager chick sounds early ’90s hot, but what does it have to do with him hocking old crooked golf clubs during the Obama administration?

There’s a phrase – an overused, horrible phrase in writing circles – “Kill your darlings.” It means that you should edit the living fuck out of your drafts, just massacre the damn things, no matter how much you love them. Your story means the world to you, and that’s great, but even your relatives don’t want the ass-numbing chore of thumbing through this opus with only the vague hope that you know what you’re doing.

That's right, I said it. Eat me, Faulkner!

That’s right, I said it. Eat me, Faulkner!

I’ll tell you why I don’t like “Kill your darlings.” It’s too ugly, and puts too much cracked psychology into your relationship with your creation. If you love every single word you write then odds are you’re such a self-centered, self-involved asshole no one will enjoy reading your masturbatory tale of someone your age in your basic situation doing shit that you don’t have the balls to do. “Edit ruthlessly.” “Get over yourself.” Even the basic criticism in Catch-22: “Too prolix.” So come to grips with your writing ability and what you’re producing, and then don’t even consider the phrase “Kill your darlings” as advice, because it’s irrelevant.

So what’s my advice? Focus on what this book is really about. It’s not that it’s not good, but you’ve got all these side plots and side characters and details! Holy shit, the details! Knock that off! First thing you do, any time you’re describing the shape of a person’s face or what brand of underwear they have on, think – “What does this say about the character?” If the answer is “Nothing more than what the shape of their face is” or “Where they shop” then cut that bullshit out! Who cares? How does that help anything? You’re not Dickens and no one will pay you by the word for this monstrosity.

The first page alone is a crime scene

The first page alone is a crime scene

Honestly, this story – 275 pages. That’s it, that’s all you get. You don’t need more. You haven’t written the great American novel, and no one is going to claim you did. There will be no awards, and classes will not be taught with you as the subject. But really, it’s not bad. It can even be enjoyable, once you lop off a few hundred pages. Cut down on the repetition (How many times does this guy have to be “exhausted” and “beat” and “weary” and “worn out” and “bushed”? Every paragraph? Because that’s how it reads).

So make with the chop-chop, kemo sabe, and next thing you know this virtually unreadable beast will delight your friends and former writing teachers, and practically no one else. Hey, these are the harsh realities of publishing. Good luck out there!


Filed under humor, Writing

7 responses to “Dude, Your First Draft is Way, Way, Way Too Long

  1. Harsh but true. Just wrote a post about Elmore Leonard’s rules on writing, one of the main ones being: ‘leave out the bits the readers skip’.

  2. rpmas

    Thank you I almost choked to death. . I was drinking my coffee when I found your post in Reader. The picture of the papers is first in Reader and I had to scroll down and scroll down. I was wondering when it was going to stop. Then I saw “Dude, Your First Draft is Way, Way, Way Too Long” I started to choke. You cannot drink coffee and laugh at the same time. Oh that really makes a point. I won’t forget the post any time soon.

  3. “Get over yourself,” is one of the most invaluable pieces of advice anyone could ever offer.

  4. Very well said! The phrase “kill your darlings” is catchy, but you’ve explained the whole idea behind editing beautifully.

  5. smwright

    Great post! Sometimes you just have to gut whole sections of a manuscript or cut the unnecessary. Writers shouldn’t fear the red because it is really their friend and takes care of the unnecessary to make make the manuscript shine.

  6. “You’re not Dickens and no one will pay you by the word for this monstrosity.”
    Good to be reminded of that from time to time. I think my long-windedness goes back to fulfilling word and page requirements for school, where you just start writing like you know what the heck you’re talking about. Fake it til you make it!

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