From the Archives: THE EMERALD TABLET – A Closer Look at Revisions

First some basic stats on THE EMERALD TABLET:

Time to write first draft – 3 months
Length of first draft - 113K
Length of published novel – 66K
Time from first word written until publication – 4 years

First line of first draftThe night was bright, lit by a waxing gibbous moon.
(Okay, it pains me to put that down. And it came from a prologue, no less, long since deleted from the story.)

First line of published novel - When Benjamin Holt saw his mom disappear into a pinprick of light, he shouldn’t have been surprised; his life was already weird.

So I’ve talked a little bit about the revision process for THE EMERALD TABLET before, but I thought I’d go into a bit more detail.

After my manuscript was complete (I’d been through it a few times, I’d added all I thought needed added), it weighed in at a hefty 113K. Why hefty you might ask. There are books being published with that word count and more. But for the case of THE EMERALD TABLET, the words were unneeded. I’ll summarize these unnecessary words in three line items:

  • Backstory
  • Incorrect Starting point
  • Far too many things “personal” to me

When I started the planning of the novel and the trilogy overall, everyone had a birthday and everyone had a family and there were friends of the family. And being a telegen in the real world, Benjamin had played many pranks in the past. And there was the prologue which dealt mainly with Benjamin’s birth. And you know what? I needed to know all these things. But the reader didn’t. And so I went through the manuscript many, many times, cutting everything I could possibly cut in regards to backstory. Benjamin’s best friend’s mother’s occupation was just not pertinent. Neither was the girl next door who had a crush on Benjamin.

My advice: Cut all the backstory you possibly can. Ask yourself – does the reader really need to know this? If not, cut it.

Incorrect Starting Point:
Let’s see, first there was the prologue (as mentioned above), but then the story started one sunny afternoon with Benjamin and Andy playing a prank as they so often did on sunny afternoons. And after the prank, we needed a chapter showing us a little more of Benjamin’s talents. And then we needed to see the last day of school. And once Benjamin found out he was going to summer school, he needed to go shopping, because, you know, all boys are really excited about going shopping. And then he was off to summer school and the story got going. So yeah, in revisions, guess where the story ended up starting?

A couple fun comparisons:
Benjamin finds out he’s going to summer school – first draft – page 54
Benjamin finds out he’s going to summer school – final - page 2
Benjamin actually goes to summer school – first draft – page 74
Benjamin actually goes to summer school – final - page 13
Benjamin finds the Emerald Tablet – first draft – page 208
Benjamin finds the Emerald Tablet – final - page 54

My advice: Really think about the right starting point for your novel. Where does the action start? What drives the story forward. Find out and start there.

Far too many things “personal” to me:
I’ve heard it said that a first novel written is too close to the author. When we write, we want to put in all those things that are special to us. We want to write in the funny jokes we heard cracked in middle school. We want to portray our nemeses in all their rotten glory down to the dumb jean jackets they always wore.
We get our novel critiqued and someone says they love a certain line. And so we hold onto that line forever. And ever. We never want to cut it.
Here’s the truth: Things that are funny in your memory will not necessarily be funny to others. They also may not fit in this particular story. But the good news is you have plenty of stories ahead of you. You will be able to use those jokes somewhere else. You will be able to set a scene at your favorite ice cream shop in a different novel. Benjamin Holt had no need to visit Scoops Ice Cream and play his favorite retro game Moonquest. Maybe you did, but give your character a break. Don’t give him too much retro baggage that you loved.

My advice: If you are hesitant about cutting something, ask yourself the honesty question. Honestly, why are you holding onto a certain line? Does it add to the story or is it because it is a line that you love? Kill your darlings, right? Yes, kill them. Away. You seriously will never miss them.

(Just for fun, THE EMERALD TABLET in its beauteous first draft had bonsai trees, Aikido, crabapple flinging, and popcorn popping as gradable homework.)


PJ Hoover can laugh about her revisions now. And she thought her first draft was perfect :)

(Originally posted 12/1/09)
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Filed under P. J. Hoover

41 responses to “From the Archives: THE EMERALD TABLET – A Closer Look at Revisions

  1. PJ: This is one of the most interesting posts I’ve read on revisions. It sings because you showed us exactly what you did. I love the page comparisons. That makes it crystal clear. Thanks!

  2. Great post! I love the specific examples you use to show what changes you made and why. I might have to share this with my writing students. :-)

  3. This. This was awesome. Thank you so much for sharing it! I loved learning about the process you took!

  4. Revisions are so much fun! Thanks for sharing the details!

  5. Awesome post! I love hearing about the process you went through. It’s very helpful. Thank you for being so honest about about your first draft. I love it!

  6. I loved this post. The page comparisons are so much like what I am going through on my WIP; chapter 5 is now chapter 1 for example.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  7. I really like this post! And I agree with you. A first draft is such a journey for the writer. We need to know everything about the characters and the world we put them in so that our story rings true.

    It is really easy to forget this sometimes, especially when our devilish internal editor shows up prematurely!

    Thanks again!

  8. Parker Peevyhouse

    Really interesting, PJ!

  9. This is BRILLIANT! I love it! Is everyone going to do something like this?

  10. Wow! That is VERY interesting to see the pages of events change from the first draft to the final!

  11. Thank you, thank you for being so open with all you had to go through in revision! This is exactly what I was looking for.

    I feel like some authors want to make everyone feel their first draft came out flawless and went to print the next day. I KNOW that’s not how it is, but most are always so reluctant to share what really goes on. You just hear revise, revise, revise. But it was just refreshing to see some specifics and feel a bit reassured that my mad murder spree of my “darlings” does not mean I’m insane. Not completely anyway.

  12. PJ – I love posts about each author’s revision process, and this is one of the absolute best. The “incorrect starting point” is something I massively struggled with in my first novel. Yikes, did I struggle. And I love you sharing the various statistics on it. Great post!

    • Thanks, Jay! The funniest thing is I totally didn’t think I was starting my book in the wrong place. I denied it and so thought all the info was needed.
      I have improved and at this point sometimes need to back up my stories a bit. :)

  13. Christy Raedeke

    We must have been separated at birth! This has been my *exact* experience. Well, except that I cut the first 67 pages instead of 54.

    And we both met our agent at Big Sur, didn’t we? (Different years, sadly. Would loved to have been there together.)

    Great post!

    • No way, Christy! I am SO glad I’m not the only one. What a difference it makes, huh?
      And yes on Big Sur! We’ll have to do it some other time together I’m thinking!

  14. Natalie Aguirre

    Thanks for the great post. My first drafts were over 91,000 words. My problem wasn’t my start but trying to do too much in the story, so I finally let go of a subplot I loved and cut it, getting rid of 10,000 words. My last revision, I cut a lot of passive verbs & not narrating quickly enough to the next scene, which cut 5000 words amazingly. Reading the Emerald Tablet, where you are so good at getting to the important scenes, really helped me see how to be more concise.

  15. C.L.

    Thank you for this post. It’s so important. I loved your comparisons between your first and final draft. Some of the issues you talked about are the ones I’m wrestling with right now.

  16. Great revision post, thanks for sharing PJ! It’s really interesting to see where things were on the first draft vs. the final. I wish it were easier to figure that stuff out at the beginning!

  17. Wow. Thanks for sharing all that. You make me feel much better. Nexus Point was 140k when I submitted it as a perfect, wonderful story. By the time my editor and I finished edits, it was down to 99k. Whenever she questioned a scene or a paragraph that I couldn’t figure out how to fix, I cut it and checked to make sure it wasn’t needed. Guess what? Very few were needed. When I tell people how much I cut, they are flabbergasted (love that word). But 113k to 66k? It shows how much of our work we write for ourselves. And how little non-writers-of-fiction understand what we do. (Had to put that in, I know too many people who write non-fiction where yes, all those fiddly details are necessary.)

  18. I’m glad you re-posted this because I missed it the first time. What a great look at the revision process (painful opening lines and all!) :)

  19. Natalie Aguirre

    Great post. It actually helped me a lot when you posted it the first time. It helped me be brave enough to make my own cuts. My manuscript was about 20,000 words too long. It took a few times, but I did cut them. Thanks.

  20. Claire Merle

    Great post. Love the first line of your published novel and very interesting to see the comparison between first draft and final book.

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