Frank Zafiro on the Process of Self-Editing

Frank Zafiro

Whether you are a best-selling author with a big five publisher, exclusively self-published, or anywhere in between, there is one thing every writer faces: self-editing. After that initial burst of creative energy that is every first draft comes the often arduous task of revision. We all know that it is infinitely easier to edit someone else’s work rather than our own. Why? Easy answer — because every word we write is brilliant and necessary.


Yeah, not so much. I think every writer goes through the first revision and realizes something that seemed top shelf in the first draft needs editing. Realistically, none of us expect to be perfect on the first pass. It’s a given that there will pruning and polishing throughout. That’s part of the process, and it gets us to the place we really want to be with a finished work. One of my favorite endings of my own books is Waist Deep, and those two brief, final chapters underwent a number of revisions before I was happy with the structure and the content. A lot of that work I did on my own, but I certainly had some great input from others, too. At the end of it all, I found myself at a place writers rarely do — not just content, but actually pleased with the outcome. Waist Deep was about redemption, and the final line signals the beginning of the main character actually finding that redemption. It just took some revision for him to find it.

Revision is an arduous process, true. But sometimes it is downright painful. When I wrote the third River City novel, Beneath a Weeping Sky, the original length (I’m talking AFTER revision) was just a shade over 150,000 words. That’s massive for a crime novel. The story of this police procedural tracks a serial killer at work in River City and the efforts of the police to stop him. As part of the storytelling process, I used a series of flashbacks for three different characters. The flashback events strongly influenced each of the characters in the present. One involved a female officer who had been sexually assaulted in college and remained silent about it. She is approached to act as a decoy for the task force trying to catch the suspect. Another set of flashbacks involve a veteran officer and his guilt over a pair of sexual assaults he interrupted while serving in Vietnam. The third flashback was a lengthy one that told the backstory of the suspect himself as a child and a young man.

There were a couple of problems with this approach. One was that the scenes added length to an already long novel. For instance, the suspect-related flashback alone was 21,000 words. That leads to the second problem, which was pacing. As Jill Maser, one of my friends (and harshest, most appreciated editor) pointed out, as soon as I built any momentum or tension in the story line, a flashback came a long an put a stop to it.

She was right.

I hated it, but she was right. And she wasn’t the only one who expressed that opinion, either.

So how to handle this? I could have just cut the flashbacks entirely, but that option never really seemed right. The events were pretty important for each of the characters and directly impacted how each was responding to present events. So I had to figure out how to both “cut it and keep it.” In the end, I decided to severely curtail the flashbacks to both officers. Instead, those officers relived flashes of those events in snippets. All in all, a couple hundred words told the story instead of 14,000. I kept the flashback for the villain, though I cut another 4,000 words from that section of the book. All in all, I slashed 18,000 words. The final, published draft was still 132,000 words, which is a lot, but the tension remains more consistently throughout.

Why keep the villain flashback? I wanted to flesh out the character in a way that just wasn’t possible in the present of the story. I wanted to show the reader where he came from, how he came to be, and evoke a sense of sympathy for the child he was while retaining the horror for who he is. That duality fascinated me, and I didn’t think it would be achieved if I tried to inject the sympathy into the ongoing events of the novel. He was, after all, assaulting women in more and more violent ways. Pretty difficult to elicit sympathy for someone behaving that monstrously. But tell the story of an abused kid? That can lead to sympathy, and then to contradiction when the reader is forced to rectify what s/he knows of the child and of the adult. That entire experience was something I didn’t want to abandon, even if it meant a 132K word novel instead of a 118K novel.

Maybe I was being undisciplined, and unwilling to kill my darlings. Some might say so. I don’t think so, however. I knew what I wanted to accomplish and very deliberately crafted the novel to fit that goal. I slashed the flashbacks when they could be told in a fraction of the space with the same impact. But while I trimmed the villain flashback, keeping it separate was the only way I saw to get the job done.

It has turned out to be a polarizing choice. Readers have responded in one of two ways, without a lot of middle ground. Either they hate the villain flashback, or they believe the novel couldn’t survive without it. Obviously, I shower the latter group with effusive praise for being brilliant readers and utterly ignore the former. What other choice do I have? It’s not like I’m going to revise the book again, even if I did agree with the nay-sayers (and they can be loud — just look at a few of the reviews on Amazon). The book is finished and it is what it is. And I’m happy with it.

On a related note, I was able to salvage about 13,000 words of the cut material several years later. I decided to build a short novel around the events that Thomas Chisolm experienced in Vietnam, and send him on a current day, post-retirement adventure as a result of those events. The 38,000 word novel(la) Chisolm’s Debt was the result. So you could argue that, at the end of the proverbial day, I didn’t cut it at all.

See? Self-editing is hard.