Whittling it Down: What to Do When a Manuscript is too Long

As usual, my thoughts about the writing process might also be relevant to living.

Case in point: What to do when a manuscript is too long (or a life is too cluttered)?

Answer: Whittle it down.

(These comments will be about writing; you decide how to apply them to your life.)

I recently got a manuscript to edit that was a whopping 141,000 words. The writer obviously had a lot to say. But, sadly, too much to say. An agent or a publisher would not be impressed.

Publishing is a business and most of us are unknowns with no track record of book sales. Some 170,000 books are published every year in the U.S. alone (more in the U.K.). That comes to about 475 books a DAY. Many (if not most) don’t earn back the money a publisher spends to produce them. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely a publisher will agree to buy a bloated manuscript because its prospects of making money are too uncertain – but the certainty it will LOSE money goes up the longer the book.

Your goal should be to trim your manuscript to about 75,000 words. This doesn’t necessarily mean that what you cut will go onto the scrap heap. This is because publishers, if they like a manuscript (and the author), will want to know if you have any more stories up your sleeve. You’ll be able to say, “Why, yes. I do!”

Remember: Publishing is a business.

My first novel “Fast Track” went through 14 major revisions. At one point, it was a 150,000-word mishmash. One publisher rejected it because it didn’t fit into an easily identifiable niche – it wasn’t literary, it wasn’t a romance, it wasn’t a mystery. He said he didn’t know how to market it.

So, I took the manuscript to the book review club that met in my neighborhood. The women in the club read the story and then let me sit in on their critique. By listening to their comments, I realized I had three subplots I could easily jettison. That was the tipping point. I whittled it down to a lean 75,000 word-mystery that netted me an agent and a publisher — and some very enthusiastic readers.

So…..whittling really can pay off. See for yourself by clicking here: Fast Track

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Turning Grief into Love

Came across this passage this morning from the booklet “Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief” by Martha Whitmore Hickman:

“….all the time we are struggling with our grief and its meaning, the seeds of a new compassion are germinating in our psyches. Because we have suffered, we are tenderhearted toward others. Because our own defenses have been peeled away, we have a new perspective on what it means to be vulnerable, and we recognize how closely we are all connected to one another, in a way we become porous, transparent — people whom the light shines through. And the light, which is love illuminated, reaches those around us and perhaps they, too, become able to take the risk of loving…..We know that, while we are still sad, we are not alone, and that love, often forged out of sadness, is life’s greatest gift to us all.”

This is sort of where I am right now. When I was on the metro yesterday, I found myself watching the people jostling for position as they got on and off the train. I realized that every one of them has probably suffered some kind of loss or is dealing with some kind of pain or suffering. We’re not alone — even though we often go through life feeling as if we are.

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Garbage Day

Garbage Day

They’re coming soon
to pick up the week’s detritus –
Corona bottles, paper plates caked
with dried tomato sauce. The usual.
I tote a bulging garbage bag down the back stairs
And heave it into a stained green bin.
The sun is only a promise in the predawn grey sky.

Sorting through the recyclables,
I shove aside soggy newspapers
And the dampened carcasses of empty envelopes
Until I retrieve a tattered receipt the taxman will need
for my son’s meager estate.

Not much time. I hear their truck groaning in the next block.
One more trip and I’ll be done.
My last cargo is rotting flowers.
A week ago (or was it two?)
when I identified his body in the morgue,
The sprays were elegant white lilies
And radiant but fragile roses
Held high on stalwart emerald stems.
Now they are fetid, flaccid, spent.
They have done their noble duty
of brightening dull days,
But their life ended too soon…like his.

My deadline’s met – the garbage guys aren’t here yet.
I trudge up the stairs, already exhausted
Yet the day’s just beginning.
Strewn along the path, I pass the fallen petals
from a dead bouquet – puddles of fuchsia tears.

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Dealing with Criticism: Some Suggestions

These are comments I made recently to a woman after I edited her manuscript. But I believe they could apply to life, as well:

A lot of my criticisms are my subjective reactions to what you’ve written. If I make a suggestion, it’s only that: a suggestion. You are totally free to accept it, reject it, or come up with something entirely different.

-go through the comments and let them ruminate

-make decisions on how you plan to rework, revise, and rewrite.

-start making your changes

-TAKE YOUR TIME. A part of you will be impatient to give birth to your masterpiece, but as all good moms know, letting nature take its course is the wiser way. If you’ve been with the project for a long time (9 months or even 9+ years), it’s only natural to want get it over with, but don’t rush the creative process.

-Once you’re done rewriting, find people who – because they love you – are willing to read the manuscript at no charge and give you their honest feedback. It probably won’t be as nitpicky as a professional editor’s, but – if it’s HONEST – it’ll help you know where the story is good and where it still needs reworking.

Writing a manuscript is like living life: We are all works in progress.

I would be honored to edit your manuscript. Click on the “contact” button on my Home Page to get in touch with me. Type “Manuscript Editing” in the subject line. Or make a comment below.

Thanks! I look forward to working with you.

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Fatal Car/Train Collision Leads to Novel

On the night of December 20, 1959, I was sitting in the left front seat of the Vista-Dome car of the Burlington Zephyr passenger train as it hurtled through northern Illinois on its way from Chicago toward my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

The engineer would later tell a coroner’s jury that he was going 90 miles an hour (legal at the time) as we rounded a gentle curve at the tiny town of Chadwick.

From my vantage point in the darkened dome car near the front of the train, I could see the locomotive’s searchlight slice through the darkness, sweeping the tracks that stretched ahead of us. Suddenly, off to my left, I saw a car speeding toward a crossing we were approaching. The car looked like a 1949 Chevy, distinctive because of its sloped rear end. A split second later, I lost sight of the car as it went in front of the train.

I heard a bang, the train shuddered, and debris rained onto the Plexiglas dome, cracking the window I’d been peering through. I ducked, then scrambled down the narrow stairway to the dome car’s lower level where I told my dad and the conductor what I’d just witnessed.

I was nine years old.

Eventually, the train came to a stop at least a mile down the tracks. My dad got off to investigate, but I didn’t want to see the carnage, so I stayed behind, shivering in a frigid vestibule and looking out the open door as Dad made his way to the front of the train.

An ambulance silently passed by, red lights flashing, a shrouded figure stretched out in back. I would meet the ambulance driver, Bob Helms, years later at a book signing in Chadwick. Tears welled in his eyes as he told me about that night in 1959 when he helped retrieve the mangled bodies of the three people whose lives ended so suddenly and brutally.

The crash killed Eugene Kutzke, 22; his wife Ellen, 17; and her brother, Raymond Stage, 11 – all of Freeport, Illinois. Earlier in the day, they’d been in Dubuque, Iowa and were returning to Freeport in a borrowed car.

I remember being particularly troubled that a boy about my age was among the victims.

The coroner’s jury ruled the crash an accident. The car came from the West and made a sharp left turn just before the grade crossing. Several buildings on the right side of the car would have obscured the driver’s view of the tracks, which crossed the road at a slightly oblique angle. The speeding train was coming from the right. Even if the driver saw the train – which I doubt — he wouldn’t have had time to react.

After my dad returned from his foray to the front of the train, we went to the club car and sat with several other people who listened as we recounted our stories. A woman told me she lived nearby and would send me a newspaper clipping with details of the crash. Thirty-five years later, it still hadn’t arrived.

Fast forward to about 1994. I was doing a writing exercise recounting a personal experience – the one you’ve just read. As I wrote, I remembered a radio news report about a car-train collision in which an infant survived. I began wondering what if an infant had survived the crash I’d witnessed and grew up wondering about her past. That idea turned into my mystery-suspense novel “Fast Track.”

The novel isn’t about the accident. If anything, it’s an example of how a personal experience can be the seed of an idea that can blossom into something else – something redeeming.

The book begins with my 25-year-old heroine vexed because she doesn’t know what to do with her life. She discovers the body of the aunt who raised her from infancy – a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. (This is an echo of my sister’s suicide in 1980 – but that’s another story for another time.) That trauma begins a quest to unlock secrets kept hidden for a quarter century when her parents died in a mysterious car-train collision.

The manuscript went through 14 major revisions over 10 years before I found my current agent, Barbara Casey, (the 39th agent I queried). During that process, I drew on other personal experiences to add texture to a story that includes politics, journalism, and mentoring relationships.

But it all started 50 years ago in Chadwick, Illinois. So, I suppose it’s fitting that I named my heroine Lark Chadwick.


John DeDakis is a Senior Copy Editor on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” and the author of the mystery-suspense novels “Fast Track” and “Bluff.”

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Hope Can Spring from Tragedy

There’s something personal I’d like to share with you: Several years ago, my sister killed herself. It was the worst day of my life. But hope can spring from tragedy. Dr. Reef Karim, a Los Angeles psychiatrist on the faculty of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, interviewed me about suicide — a theme that runs throughout my mystery/suspense novel “Fast Track,” drawn, in part, from my sister’s suicide.

The interview is now available as a podcast sponsored by The Depression is Real Coalition, a group dedicated to helping people who suffer from depression. Here’s the link to our conversation: http://depressionisreal.org/podcast/archive_2008_01.php. It’s program #34. I hope you’ll give it a listen.

Feel free to pass this along to anyone else in your life who you feel might be encouraged by the interview.


John DeDakis
CNN Senior Copy Editor
(“The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer”)
Author, “Fast Track” and “Bluff” (mystery-suspense)

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You Should Write a Book

Easier said than done.

Most writers are motivated to write because of things that have happened to them. And the first instinct is to write it as a non-fiction autobiography because the experiences are so vivid and personally profound. Often, well-meaning friends who’ve heard you recount portions of the story exclaim, “You should write a book!”

But they don’t realize just how hard that actually is.

One reason it’s harder than most people think is that if you’re writing non-fiction, your editor will need to know more of the facts and context of any given story than you – from your narrow and limited point of view – actually know. So, as you try to write FACTUALLY, you’ll discover that you don’t know nearly as many facts as you thought you did.

Of course you can set out to find those missing details, but, as a journalist, I can tell you that the process is time-consuming, expensive, and fraught with all kinds of difficulties. And perhaps the biggest difficulty is that if you’re writing things that are unflattering about a person, you could get sued for defamation of character. Even though what you’re writing is true, if the person’s not a public figure, you could lose a lot of money defending yourself in court.

It ain’t worth it.

Not only that, but, publishers are less likely to want to make your story into a book because you’re not well known, making it harder for them to sell the story of a nobody to the general public. Publishing is, after all, a business.


Here’s what I suggest:

Use those personal stories as a way to inspire your imagination. Change some of the details of the events and characters so that the real people won’t recognize themselves, then build a story that still conveys the deeper “truth” you want to communicate. If you have a vivid imagination you’d be on firmer ground going in that direction. That’s because you get to “dream up” the facts, something an editor of non-fiction won’t let you get away with.

That’s how I dreamed up my first novel “Fast Track.” The book got its start because of two traumatic experiences in my life: a car/train collision I witnessed as a kid, and my sister’s suicide. But, instead of recounting what happened in the style of a just-the-facts-ma’am journalist, I made up an entirely different story – a mystery/thriller – that still highlights themes and truths surrounding sudden death and suicide. I used my imagination to create a story that would resonate with people who don’t know anything about me personally.

If you’re able to camouflage the true events that happened to you and create a compelling story that still conveys a deeper “truth,” you may be able to write not just one book, but ten, simply by using what happened to you as your creative muse.

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Confessions of a Cross-gender Writer

I admit it: I’m a man writing in a woman’s body — a guy who writes in the first person as a female.

When my mystery/suspense novel FAST TRACK was first published in hardcover in 2005, one of my male friends said in astonishment to one of our mutual female friends, “I didn’t know John was a closet woman!”

Here’s how I inscribed his book:  “Welcome to my closet.”

My CNN colleague and cone-of-silence friend Carol Costello once told me after reading an early draft of the manuscript, “You have a very well-developed female side.” I suppose some guys might be freaked to be told that, but Carol meant it as a compliment, so I accept it even though I’m still not totally sure what she means.

Writing as a woman started when I first began toying with fiction at least 15 years ago. Someone suggested that I choose a point of view that would be different for me and a challenge.

It was only later that I realized that most people who buy books are women.   Cool.

I found that writing from the female perspective hasn’t been as tough as I thought it would be, for a number of reasons:

  • I had a great relationship with my mom (a third grade school teacher, incidently) — I could talk with her about anything
  • Cindy, my wife of nearly 30+ years, is one of those quality people who have a lot of substantive things to say. She’s smart, compassionate, articulate, and never boring
  • My 29-year-old writer/daughter Emily is never shy about offering an opinion on just about everything (including early drafts of my manuscripts)
  • I work in a newsroom surrounded by twenty-something young women who tell me stuff because I’m much more comfortable asking questions and listening than pontificating.

I asked a lot of women to read FAST TRACK before I found my agent — also a woman (Barbara Casey) — and their feedback helped me make tweaks that rendered the text authentic to the female psyche. For example, I had a line of dialogue in which Lark Chadwick, my protagonist, says, “I’ll just jump into the shower.” The women of the Princeton Lakes Book Club in Marietta, Georgia, who let me sit in and listen as they critiqued the manuscript, said, as one: “Women do NOT just ‘jump’ into the shower. We languish in it and savor the sensuality of the experience.”

Got it. Lark no longer jumps into the shower.

After FAST TRACK came out, Kris Kosach of ABC Radio wrote, “DeDakis crawls inside the mind of a twenty-something female, authentically capturing her character, curiosity and self-expression in this can’t-put-down thriller.”    Nice.

And I continue to be amazed at the numerous 5-star reviews I get on Amazon from women who don’t seem to mind that a man is writing as a woman. See for yourself: http://www.amazon.com/review/product/1595071024/ref=cm_cr_pr_link_1?%5Fencoding=UTF8&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending

And now, with the publication of BLUFF, my second novel in the Lark Chadwick mystery-suspense series, author and investigative journalist Diane Dimond had this to say:  “Lark reminds me of me in the early days of my career….DeDakis can so accurately write from a woman’s point of view — with all the intrinsic curiosity, emotion and passion — [that it’s] nothing short of astounding.”   Thanks, Diane!

Yes, there is probably still plenty of prejudice out there among people who don’t believe it’s possible for a writer to be able to bridge the gender gap, but I’ve found that emotions are universal. Women, as well as men, experience fear, joy, anger, and sadness. No one gender corners the market on having feelings, it’s just that I’ve found women express them more interestingly and articulately.

So, I’m proud to be a woman — if only on the printed page.

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5 Ways to Stay Organized While Writing a Novel

Some lessons I’m learning along the writing path:

1. Create a Master Plan Document: This is a living, breathing, evolving document. It contains a Daily Writing Log, plus my plot outline, key pivot points, and a brief summary of each chapter.

2. Keep a Daily Writing Log: For the sake of simplicity, I put it at the top of the Master Plan. The log documents each writing session by date and time. Nothing elaborate here, just a few quick notes of what I hope to accomplish and how my thinking/writing is evolving. It’s a narrative history of how the book is being created. I can easily find my place because in all caps and in big, bold, bright red lettering I put the words, THIS IS WHERE I AM NOW. I just scroll down until I see red (so to speak) and then add the next entry.

3. Keep Track of Changes: As the story unfolds, the chapters in my Master Plan change, but rather than obliterating the old, I merely add the new information along with the date I made the change. By doing this, I’m creating and preserving the history of how the story evolved.

4. Create a New Folder for Each Draft: “Fast Track,” my first novel, had 14 Draft Folders. My new book, “Bluff,” which has just been released, contains 8 Draft Folders. For “Troubled Water,” the novel I’m working on right now, I’ve just begun Draft #2.

5. Give Each Chapter a Name: Each Draft Folder contains the individual chapters – a separate file for each chapter. Numbering them keeps them in their proper order (1.1, 2.1 etc. For the second draft, the numbering sequence is 1.2, 2.2 etc.) But just as important as numbering, is giving your chapters titles. I don’t mean a title that will ever see the light of day in your book – it’s merely a memory prod so you know at a glance what’s contained in the chapter. This way, you don’t have to keep opening files later to find what you’re looking for. (NOTE: Chapter numbers and titles may change from draft to draft because you’ll probably be making lots of alterations, including reordering the sequence of things and breaking big chapters into several smaller ones.)

Final Thoughts:

I find that it’s more efficient to write the novel straight through rather than continuing to loop back to make each sentence perfect. Why? Because it gives me a sense of accomplishment — a realization that I can actually do it. It’s purely psychological, the thinking being, “if I’ve already ‘finished’ the book, then the rest of my time is spent merely tweaking it.”

Knowing up front that the first draft will suck takes the pressure off. The first draft serves mainly as exploration. As I write my third novel, I’m discovering that while my Master Outline has given me the story’s scaffolding – the big picture – by writing individual chapters I’m, in effect, zooming in for a close-up in which new, and often unexpected, characters sashay on stage. Some of the chapters consist almost entirely of dialogue – almost no tags, no action, no description. That will come in subsequent drafts. For now, I’m just writing as fast as I can what I see in my head.

My way of staying organized is certainly NOT the only way, so I think we’d all benefit to hear what works (and doesn’t work) for you.



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