I took my manuscript of The Biggest Cowboy in the World back from the publisher, meaning that it is no longer scheduled to be published.
Have you ever been working on something and have gotten a feeling that it wasn’t going well? That it had gotten too hard, or too complicated, or had somehow lost its way and you were struggling to get it back on track? I finally admitted that my novel didn’t feel right. Taking out 30,000 words was the first hint – I still haven’t understood how I wrote that much unneeded material without seeing how it obscured my basic story rather than enlightened it. Add to that another 6,000 words that I took out in the next pass and the hint was stronger that things weren’t right.
The novel is better for all that removal: cleaner, neater, more straight-to-the-point, and a simpler storyline. I even thought that the novel might have become suitable as a Young Adult book, which would have given it a definite genre and avoided labeling it as a Western.
That’s another hint of impending wrongness – I had suddenly changed who my target audience was, as well as avoiding my usual dislike for genre classifications.
I was begging the novel to do something that I hadn’t originally designed it for and the feeling of “begging” was the last hint needed for the story to be put into the proverbial drawer. I intent to return to it in the future; I like the extended saga of adventure and self-discovery, the character arc, the emotions, the setting, the movement, the characters, and the readability. There’s a lot of originality to it, good surprises and twists, and it makes for a good read. I believe that readers will like the tale once it’s told.
But it’s not ready. I need to step away.
I will tidy things up. I went to Texas last week and had a great time visiting the Goodnight Ranch outside of Amarillo, the Armstrong County Historical Museum in Claude, Fort Concho in San Angelo, the Caprock Canyonlands State Park outside of Turkey, and a great scenic drive through the Palo Duro Canyon country. All of these locations are pertinent to my story. From all that exposure, I found new information and expressions that will modify the manuscript, so I will make those changes before I put it away.
I also have a history consultant reviewing the manuscript for errors. I’m sure he’ll find something, and I will make those changes as well.
I will complete my file folder of printed excerpts from various books and articles concerning the Red River War, the Comanches, the school at Fort Sill, the timeline of the JA and Goodnight ranches, the history of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, Nellie Bly’s trip around the world, and other historical facts. I did not write a historical novel, but my descriptions need to be either accurate or reasonably authentic. When I return to rewriting, I don’t want to find myself puzzled by anything I’ve written.
My publisher, meanwhile, has dropped the book from the edit/cover/format/publish cycle. We hadn’t yet signed a contract, so canceling anything and/or paying a penalty is not a problem. I will pay for the efforts of my editor in reviewing the manuscript and making suggestions. The publishing house is happy with my decision; if I think my book is fatally flawed, they don’t want to be responsible for doing CPR.
After I do my housecleaning, I have two ideas that have been percolating for a year or so. I want to write a Mogi Franklin mystery that involves witchcraft in New Mexico from the 1700s to now; and I am very interested in the time period right after the end of World War II in Europe (Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia). I think there’s a story there, similar to the background in Teddy’s War.
Am I disappointed that my year-long effort is being put in the drawer? Yes. Am I discouraged? No. Am I hopeful? Yes. I think my plot, characters, settings, and drama are good. Letting everything sit for a while will make the story stronger when I do return to pick it up again.
Last month, Sebastian Yurtseven was helping his aunt clean out her house in Hagen, Germany. The town had been severely flooded and the plasterboard on the walls in her home had been soaked. As Sebastian tore out a wall section, he found a foot-wide space behind the wall containing a newspaper from 1945. Looking further, he discovered a trove of WWII artifacts, including a portrait of Hitler, a revolver, a box of gas masks, brass knuckles, Nazi badges, letters, and a number of documents. Archivists would eventually fill 12 boxes with the materials.
The cache revealed that the building had housed the local headquarters of the National Socialist People’s Welfare organization (Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt), referred to as the NSV. During the war, it became the second-largest organization in the Nazi party.
When Hitler was building his presence in Germany, he did not like charity or welfare groups, mainly because he felt that broad charity efforts helped sustain people in Germany who could not contribute to its success; he preferred natural selection that would allow capable Aryans to live, while the others died off.
However, by the time Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, the Great Depression had caused mass unemployment in Germany, and it had become politically untenable for the Nazis to write off the destitute as not worth helping. In reaction, he directed that any socialist, Protestant, or Catholic association be disbanded and their assets seized, the Jewish agency be restricted to helping ethnic Jews, and any other charitable agencies be controlled by the NSV or have direct Nazi leadership. All charities had to adhere to the principles of eugenics (the selective breeding of people for superior qualities) and refrain from helping those deemed biologically unfit. Within a short timeframe, he made the NSV the official organization and made any other charitable or welfare organization illegal.
The NSV restricted its assistance to those of Aryan descent who were deemed worthy of support. Those excluded from NSV benefits included “alcoholics, tramps, homosexuals, prostitutes, the ‘work-shy’, the ‘asocial’, habitual criminals, the hereditary ill (a widely defined category) and members of any races other than Aryan.” Given those constraints, by 1939, 17 million Germans received assistance, the agency operated 8,000 day-nurseries, funded holiday homes for mothers, distributed additional food for large families, and were involved with a wide variety of other facilities.
Under the NSV, the charity and welfare business was restructured to make sure that it followed the racial and ideological goals of the Nazi state. Eventually, the criteria for denial of assistance included anyone who wasn’t of the Aryan race, Communists, Social Democrats, and political opponents; travelers who requested aid; ex-convicts, re-migrants from abroad, the physically disabled, hard-of-hearing, deaf, mute, blind, the elderly, and homeless; and those involved in illicit drugs and epidemics.
The NSV, by the way, handled the “asocial”, “work-shy”, and other underperforming workers by sending them to Gestapo-operated “labor education camps”, a new category that by 1940 encompassed two hundred camps that held 40,000 inmates.
During the war, the NSV took over more and more governmental responsibilities, especially in the fields of child and youth labor. The budget, however, routinely ran a deficit and had to be subsidized with funds from the central government. The Nazi government did not wish to increase taxes, so an alternative solution was found: they would steal the money from forced laborers and the populations of conquered territories. The confiscation of Jewish, Polish, Czech, Russian, French, Belgian, etc, assets, which included furniture, appliances, rugs, silverware, cars, and farm equipment were used to provide the necessary money. It did not, I guess, include the art works, gold, and cash pillaged by the SS.
Here’s an interesting summary made of research done by Gotz Aly, a highly respected, present-day German historian: “while Jews and citizens of occupied lands suffered crippling taxation, mass looting, enslavement, and destruction, most Germans enjoyed an improved standard of living. Buoyed by millions of packages sent home by German soldiers at the front, Germans directly benefited from an almost unimaginable scale of systematic plunder of non-German possessions.” Throw in the monies distributed by the NSV and there is an argument to be made that this is why Hitler was given so much allegiance by ordinary Germans—he literally “bought” their consent.
A reviewer of one of Gotz Aly’s books made this statement:
“Why did the German people increasingly support Hitler’s rule even after it unleashed a world war that ultimately led to its own destruction? The answer, based on massive evidence and convincingly argued [by Aly], is that the Nazi regime won the support of the middle and working class Germans by creating greater social and economic equality at home and ensuring that its own “racial comrades” would be well fed and clothed, all with the proceeds of mass murder and unprecedented continent-wide robbery.”
The italics are mine.
I changed the story.
I’m rewriting The Biggest Cowboy In The World in response to comments by my editor. I’ve blogged before about the standards for the number of words in different books and her first comment that my manuscript was too long. I wasn’t sure that I could delete 30,000 words without making fundamental changes to the story and I now know that I was correct.
My first attempt at making the novel shorter had me cutting 24,000 words, and I didn’t find that it affected the storyline too much. I am now at just over 31,000 words deleted, and I chose to change several significant aspects of my story so I could shorten it further—my lead character doesn’t become a Comanche shaman, doesn’t bring the house to life, doesn’t send a telegram to his sister, returns to the house only once, the house doesn’t talk, the house doesn’t have a secret passageway to a secret room, doesn’t have a body in that room, the magic comes not from my lead character but from his uncle, a Comanche shaman, and other things.
Divorcing my new novel from the old one--Smoke Dreams—was a very good decision. Preserving the plot from the first book made the second book overly complicated, and removing it made the new story considerably cleaner, simpler, and more readable. I still have the two major characters between the two, but there are new actions that are not in the first book.
However, I’m embarrassed by having written a story that had 24,000 words that weren’t needed in the first place. What in the world did those words say that wasn’t needed? That’s a fair question. When I write my next novel, I’ll just leave those words out to begin with.
I found this:
For a verbally challenged guy, I am amazingly wordy in print. I guess I was just having too much fun to be leave things out.
Some of the deletions of what I’ve listed are elementary and I should know better (which is true), while some of the deletions did cause the story to lose context, color, pace, and smoothness; I had to work hard afterwards to eliminate choppiness. I like to read stories that help me visual the surroundings, the characters, and the actions; I appreciate knowing the backgrounds to characters, believing that it makes them more credible and believable; I like a good pace and I like smoothness; I personally like to know the weather—it helps build the backdrop of the story; I like hearing history, but I probably get carried away.
On the other hand, having a lot of unnecessary words obscures the words that are necessary. I didn’t change much with the characters, but, reading my most recent draft, I find them much easier to see, hear, follow, and identify with. My new text is much more specific in every way. I also found many mistakes and blame the clutter for not having found them before.
I remembered what Ursula Le Guin said about the ability of readers to “fill in” a lot, so I looked for opportunities to remove descriptions that readers could provide on their own. As well, I discussed the manuscript with a Hollywood script writer and he encouraged me “to make every word count”. I have tried to apply that to every sentence I review and deleted many words solely based on that rule of thumb.
I may have been premature in submitting my original draft to my editor. However, without her input, I would not have been provoked to make the drastic changes that I have. I wish I was more of a natural writer but it’s not going to happen and I have to rely on iterations to get me through.
I’m almost done with the new draft. I’m hoping that it will finish with about 112k words, compared to my first submission of over 147k words. I estimate that I will have spent about 50 total hours on the rewrite over four weeks, going through it three or so times. I’ll send it back to my editor by the end of this week and I’ll probably hear back from her in September. If it's still too long, I’ll find some way to make it shorter.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.