After the Draft: Episode VI, Erik Scott de Bie
Alright everybody! As promised, I’ve been lining up some author friends to share their first novel stories while we wait to see how my little manuscript fares out in the big scary world. First up is a good friend of mine that I bonded with through violent arguments on social media, Erik Scott de Bie. Erik has done great work in the fantasy field, especially within the Dungeon and Dragons Forgotten Realms setting. Here’s what he had to say about getting his first novel published. And please, when you’re finished, follow the links and help support a fellow traveler and artist.
Erik Scott de Bie:
Persistence is the foremost ability of a writer. Not talent, not connections, not marketing know-how, not charisma–persistence. Practice, push, repeat. Never give up.
I’ve got no real magic for getting your book published. Unless you’re extraordinarily lucky, it’s a crappy, frustrating, demeaning experience that will make you hate yourself, your writing, and the publishing world. You’ve just got to push through it, because you know your quality and you know what you want.
If you want a guide to writing and publishing that novel you’ve been kicking around, here’s a post on my blog that might be helpful: http://erikscottdebie.com/welcome/eriks-guide-to-writing-a-book/
What I’ll say about getting my first book published is that I did not expect so much revision. The first draft of GHOSTWALKER (Wizards of the Coast, December 2005) that I submitted . . . Well, it’s my own fault for writing way over the suggested word count. The contract was for 70k – 90k, but I sent in a 115k manuscript. This prompted a very polite email from my editor saying: “The highest we can go is 100k. Make it so.” And just like that, I had to cut FIFTEEN THOUSAND words from my book. And do it within about two weeks.
And I did it. There’s an entire chapter I cut out, significant amounts of description, repetitive passages, and the like. But I did it, because that’s what a writer has to do. Be persistent.
I suppose the real lesson here is “always write within the margins.” If they say they only want 90k words as an upper limit, give ‘em that. Digital publishing mitigates the problem, because word count doesn’t matter as much when you’re printing it on 1s and 0s rather than paper, but doing it right the first time is the mark of a professional. And part of that is a question of experience: the more novels you write, the more you’ll get a sense of what you can accomplish in a certain word count. The more editing you have to do after submittal, the more likely you’re going to mess up, so it’s best to do it right the first time.
But if you’re like me and you have a persistent length problem (i.e. you write way too long all the time), you’re going to have to learn to cut and cut well. Self-editing before submittal is important—cutting the fat from your story and getting down to what you absolutely think you need to say. If there’s cutting after that, it can feel like pruning off muscle and sharpening the bones of your book. But here’s the thing: making your book sharper makes it better most of the time.
The real trick is being able to cut without damaging the story—odds are you put stuff in for a reason, and you don’t want to lose its effect if it’s helpful to the story. Like a really good plastic surgeon, you have to be able to make small incisions, peel away the skin without damaging it, do your work, and make the scars not show. After all, you want your book to live a normal life after the surgery, and not have people stop and stare at its freaky appearance.
Back to Ghostwalker, the first thing that went were lightly relevant passages that the editor recommended I nix. (Editors can be amazingly helpful with this.) These were passages that didn’t further the plot any but only developed characters in ways I could accomplish more efficiently during more relevant scenes. Then we got to I borrowed chunks of text from scenes to blend elsewhere, then chopped out the donor scene. An entire chapter (wherein my hero faces down some lycanthropes in the forest) turned into a three sentence reference early in the book (about some adventurers cleaning out a band of lycanthropes a couple seasons back), and I cut the chapter. Then there were descriptive passages I could write more efficiently—things that didn’t need as many words as I gave them. Then—only then—did I start cutting meaningful stuff from the book, and by that point I just have to lose a couple hundred words.
The result was a sharper, tighter, stronger, rich, and dense book than what I had submitted, and so my debut was pretty awesome.
The takeaway here is to write the right book, at the right length, with the right density, packed with meaning, the first time. Barring that, however, always look for ways to write efficiently—make every scene develop both the plot and your characters, keep your scope tight, and never be afraid to cut things that aren’t working for you. And that will make your first novel way, way more likely to see the light of day.
Erik Scott de Bie is a 30-something speculative fiction author, best known for his work in the Forgotten Realms setting (including his SHADOWBANE series). He’s publishing three books in the next year: the space opera PRIORITY: HYPERION (set in the Traveller universe), the fantasy SCOURGE OF THE REALM (for Broken Eye Books), and SHADOW OF THE WINTER KING, the first of his epic apocalyptic fantasy WORLD OF RUIN series. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including WHEN THE HERO COMES HOME, HUMAN FOR A DAY, and many others. He moonlights as a Game Designer, and has contributed work to Dungeons and Dragons, Iron Kingdoms (the Warmachine RPG), and the forthcoming Red Aegis. He lives in Seattle, where he is married with cats and a dog.