The Writer’s Craft – Don’t Be Afraid to Delete!

(Niceville, Florida – 4 June 2021) – I’ve begun polishing book 3 of The Accidental Detective series, And So It Begins, for release early next year while I’m taking the long way ‘round in my move to Tennessee.

I drafted And So It Begins back in 2018.  That’s not quite three years ago, but a lot has changed.  Working closely for long hours with Jerry, my friend and brutally honest editor, has been an invaluable time of mentorship.  I’ve also had the opportunity to assimilate the comments I’ve received about Proud Lion and The Norfolk Murders.

The uniformity of analysis and opinions on both books is striking.  The fact that most commentators, independently of one another, hit on all the same points means I’ve got a very clear idea of what I do great, and what I need to work on.  This kind of feedback can only improve your writing and story-telling skills if you’re willing to listen.  Considering I want people to enjoy my stories and not use them as punchlines, I listen.

Which brings me back to And So It Begins.  This is a very long-in-coming story.  I had the idea for this novel back in 1998, and it simmered for the entire 20 years I was in the Navy.  As a story concept and general outline, I’m more familiar with this story than any other except the first novel of a science fiction series I’m developing (the conception of that particular story predates the conception of And So It Begins by about 12 years—truth!).  The day I began finally writing And So It Begins back in 2018 was a happy day indeed!

But now we’re smack-dab in the middle of 2021.  I’ve got two novels out the door, a metric butt-ton of time invested working with Jerry, and the experience of writing a weekly column.  My skills have improved exponentially, and I’m gaining confidence even as I gain readers.  I have a firm grasp of the story arc that weaves through the first six books of The Accidental Detective series, and I know my characters’ personalities and voices intimately by now.

So, with that level of growth and maturity, I hauled And So It Begins out of the virtual attic to begin prepping it for formal inclusion as the latest thrilling installment in the story of Isaac Shepherd and Abraham Gray.  Of course, it would need work; all rough drafts need work.  What I wasn’t expecting was the need to delete the entire first chapter and start over!

My first point of focus was developing the Fo’c’sle and Fantail sections.  Then I dug into the existing Prologue, most of which remains intact.  I trimmed off extraneous verbiage, eliminate irrelevant details, and shifted a number of sentences from passive to active voice.  All good so far!

Then I read through Chapter 1.  And cringed.

To be clear, the substance and direction of that chapter are spot-on.  I hit the notes I needed to hit to get the story moving.  However, my visceral reaction to the actual writing made me feel like I was looking at fan fiction done by a high schooler whiling away the hours in class instead of listening to the teacher.

That revelation presented me with a simple choice: dig in and start re-working everything, paragraph by paragraph (and, often, sentence by sentence), or delete the whole chapter and just rebuild it from scratch.  This is the choice all writers must face when polishing a manuscript they drafted years earlier, but don’t get back on their desk until a significant amount of time has passed.

There’s really no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ choice to make here.  If you’re a writer, you’ll face this same decision at some point.  This kind of choice doesn’t represent failure or weaknesses in your skills; it simply reveals your growth as a writer.  Such a choice means you’ve got a great problem to have because you can see where you were as a writer ‘back then,’ and how far you’ve come in the present.

I chose to delete the whole thing and just rebuild it.  The story is the same story, but this is the difference between seeing a sketch and a finished painting.  For me, considering how I think, how I write, and how I approach storytelling, deleting the chapter and rebuilding it presented the more efficient option.

Your own workflow, thought processes, and outlook might dictate that you keep the original draft and rework it piece-by-piece.  This is literally a case of ‘you do you’ so you can get to your desired goal the best way you can, and I’ll do me so I can get to my goal the best way I can.  Each writer is different because each of us is different.  If you’re talking with a writer for guidance or ideas, run for the hills if they tell you how to do it.  They may be the greatest storyteller since The Bard, but they aren’t you!

If you ask my counsel, I’ll recommend you delete and start over, but I’ll only recommend it.  The fact is the only people’s heads I’m in (apart from my own, of course) are my characters.  I’m not in your head (which, admittedly, would make things a bit crowded…), therefore I can’t tell you how to address such a choice; I can only supply my advice.

Deleting entire chapters is a daunting thought, but I do strongly recommend you keep it as an option in your toolbox.  A wise writer doesn’t discard conceptual tools out of hand, even if they don’t use them very often.  I did it myself just two days ago (the aforementioned deletion of the original Chapter 1), so I have the credibility to recommend it if you find yourself facing a similar dilemma.

I’ll go one better—I once deleted an entire month’s worth of work, which was the whole book up to that point.  When I began writing Proud Lion in November of 2019, I pounded away on it for four weeks.  I had three chapters and about 60 pages written…and realized the story was about as interesting as watching molasses freeze.  Funny as it sounds, the murder was boring and the plot was shaping up to be an effective anesthetic for putting someone in a stupor prior to a root canal.

I canned everything and started over.  The only major plot point I changed was moving Carl Bacon’s murder from the pier to on board USS Ponce herself; otherwise, every other element remained.  What changed was how I wrote those elements.  It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was (for me) the right one.

Don’t be afraid to delete and rebuild paragraphs, chapters, even whole books if you believe it’s necessary.  Such a decision does create work in the short term, but it might save you even more time in the long term by letting you begin a fresh canvas for your tale, instead of piecemeal fixing and tweaking the original, sentence by sentence.  Still, in the end, you are your own writer.  You have to make that call, so listen to yourself and do what you need to do to produce a thrilling tale guaranteed to enchant, entrance, and enthrall your readers!

I produced a short video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/ZP92FPVu724

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One thought on “The Writer’s Craft – Don’t Be Afraid to Delete!

  1. Oh yeah. Totally changing up your manuscript should be expected. I myself like to make changes in a duplicate file, just so I have the peace of mind that I can revert to my original should I need to. That gives me the freedom to do whatever I want with the duplicate file. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Like

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