Collecting—Erasers and Revision

My family says I’m a packrat.  If you saw my bulging shelves, drawers, and closets, you might agree.  But really, all that stuff is necessary:  all the books, the fabric and yarn, the family keepsakes, the trophies of milestones.  And yes, even my eraser collection.

I started collecting erasers back in junior high, when I lived in Brazil.  In those days, in that place, we didn’t shop self-service in a giant office supply store.  Instead, there was a narrow, street-front shop, no wider than a glass counter and a space for the customer to stand.  You told the clerk what you wanted, and the clerk pulled out the item from behind the glass counter.

All I needed was one eraser, but they came in different sizes and shapes and colors and textures.  The clerk pulled them all out for me and waited for my decision as I inspected each one.  I was enchanted.  Who knew if I would need to erase pen or pencil?  Maybe the green would erase cleaner than the brick-colored one.  Or the white one?  What if the nubby, gummy one worked the best of all?  How could I only take one home with me?

Well, I didn’t.  I took a whole pencil box full of erasers home with me that day because I couldn’t decide which was the right one.

It’s like that in writing.  Decisions can be hard, especially in revision.  How do you know which characters, which subplots, which scenes are necessary, and which aren’t?  How do you –erase– cut out your darlings?

My first draft of Murder in the Dojo was almost 100,000 words long.  It’s an amateur sleuth mystery, and that kind of traditional mystery typically runs much shorter.  But I was getting to know my sleuth as I wrote that draft, and I threw everything in, including the kitchen sink.  My first rewrite only ended up growing longer.

Despairing, I figuratively got out my eraser collection.  But I loved all of my secondary characters and all of my subplots and some of those clever scenes.  How could I possibly part with any of them?  I came up with 5 easy steps to help me with those hard decisions about revision:

  1. Identify the central mystery:  whodunnit, whydunnit, and howdunnit.
  2. Who are the 5 most important possible suspects, and how are they connected to the central mystery?
  3. How does my sleuth become entangled in the central mystery?  (i.e., motivation)
  4. What mistakes does the villain make that reveal him/her to my sleuth?  (i.e., plot:  what are the clues that the sleuth tracks throughout the story?)
  5. How is justice served?

Once I identified those 5 areas, it became a lot easier to see that everything else just had to go.  I eventually got my book down to 60,000 words.  (And no, the trimmed scenes didn’t make it into the second book.)

Murder with Altitude, the second in the series, is coming out next month!

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8 thoughts on “Collecting—Erasers and Revision”

  1. Your experience buying erasers in Brasil reminded me of buying office and school supplies in Mexico. Our favorite store was called Batiz and the clerks were constantly scurrying from one side of the glass case to the other, picking out items for customers and showing them as if the pens, pencils, and notebooks were fine jewelry.

    Another tip for mystery “erasures:” figure out the antogonist’s motivation and work backwards from there. It really helps to cut extraneous stuff that doesn’t directly impact the plot. A great example is Ken Follett’s THE KEY TO REBECCA.

    Best of luck with your writing! And the collection!

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  2. I love those steps, Sue. The first draft of EVERY OTHER MONDAY started at 75,000 words, grew to 95,000, ballooned up to 107,000, and finally settled at 90,000. Yes, no matter how gorgeous the scene or favored the character, sometimes you just need to get out that virtual eraser.

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  3. That’s a good way to look at how to cut down a traditional mystery, Sue. I’m lucky to get a bit more wiggle room with thrillers, but I might have to implement them sometime!

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  4. Thanks everyone! Carmen, it certainly is a different shopping experience south of the border. I love what you say about working backwards from the antagonist’s motivation–great advice!
    Mary, I’ve found that I’m an over-writer, so those erasers are necessary.
    Coffee, definitely, Theresa. I’ll swap you Brazil for Egypt.
    Sarah, you can use my erasers any time for your pacing in thrillers!

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  5. So so so so true! I’m in this place now, and it helps to have a little distance from the manuscript. I see parts that were fun to write and showed off the characters but just don’t advance the plot. I know I love the first draft writing stage the most, but I do enjoy the end of revisions when a tighter book comes into focus.

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