Monday, July 8, 2013

A Good Knifing - Nate Kenyon - Biggest 'Ah-Ha!' Moments in Writing

     Writing can be murder.

      I found that out--a major "aha moment" for me--while passing time with a serial killer who liked to skin his victims to make suits.

      Until then I'd tended to write 150,000 word first drafts of novels that were crammed full of everything I could think of to write about, and then some. I'd written three of them, actually. But no editor wanted to buy them and I couldn't figure out why. I kept getting feedback like "good writing here, but too long and complex" and "flashes of great stuff, but the story just didn't quite work for me."

      Then I sat down with the serial killer. His name was Buffalo Bill, and he was in a book called Silence of the Lambs. Perhaps you've heard of it? I couldn't get over how Thomas Harris seemed to be able to say more in one sentence than I could in ten pages. And that's when it hit me: Harris was saying more with what he WASN'T saying: that novel was a perfectly honed down bullet of a thriller, and he made every word count. I started imagining what his first draft might have been like, and how he might have whittled away at it, murdering sentence after sentence and giving the reader credit for figuring out what was going on through character's actions and dialogue, rather than handing everything to them and then some. Books are bad when they're overwritten--when the author doesn't trust himself or his audience enough to let the story and the action lead the way.

      So I took a knife to a novel I'd just finished. I hacked and slashed my way through it, taking out chunks of description, explanation, creating more suspense and letting things become more mysterious, allowing my characters to do the work for me through their actions and observations. I tried to trust myself and my readers to get it, rather than trying to explain it all to them. When I'd finished "murdering my darlings" I'd cut almost 40,000 words. I sent the novel to an editor, and in three weeks I had an offer of publication. And that was the beginning of my professional writing career.

Nate Kenyon is the author of the upcoming thriller DAY ONE (Thomas Dunne Books, October 2013) about the day machines become sentient and destroy New York City. He has written six other novels, including two media tie-ins and four original novels of horror and suspense, and he is working on his next DIABLO novel. You can find him online here or here.

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