Tighten Up

I didn’t know anything about writer conferences until after I’d signed a contract for my first novel back in 2011. It never occurred to me that writers would gather somewhere to discuss the craft and maybe learn from others who’re successful at spinning stories for fun and profit. It should have, because in my previous life as a communications professional, I went to a lot of Public Relations conferences.

My first mystery conference was Sleuthfest, in Florida, and I only knew about it because I had to go there to meet my editor, Annette Rogers. She arrived bearing a ream of white paper in her arms and recognized me by the hat hanging from the back post of my chair.

My eyes widened when she thumped the thick stack of papers on the tabletop. The title page was red, with either paint, or a thick application of crayon. A huge question mark rose above the manuscript’s title.

The folded corners rose thick on the upper right side, with fewer on the lower right.

Good God! She’s graded the damned thing!

I checked the upper left-hand corner, but there was no accusatory grade of F there to mock and embarrass me.


Annette shook my hand and positioned the papers in front of her. She broke into a smile. “We absolutely love this manuscript.”

Good, because I did, too. I’d hate to see what it looks like if you didn’t care for the stinkin’ thing.

“We’re going to publish, so we need to get busy on a few things.”

Those words were a symphony. “Sure.”

Green as grass, I laced my fingers to listen.

She flipped the title page out of the way and launched into a discussion of the plot and characters, referring to them as real people. No one had ever spoken about those figments of my imagination in such a way, and I was stunned to hear her discuss their fictionalized lives.

She even frowned when she noted that Miss Becky, one of the older protagonists in the multi-level cast of characters, had to do her wash on the front porch of an old farmhouse, because there was no running water inside.

I hung my head. I am ashamed I did that to her.

“Now, Rev, I’d like you to consider a few changes.”

Wait, what? Changes!!!??? I’d written a great novel. You said you loved it. Did people change Stephen King’s work? Did they ask David Morrell, who was sitting only two feet to my right to make Rambo a little tougher, or taller?

I swallowed. “What are those?”

She began with specifics about plot and characterization that came as thick and fast as a swarm of bees. Completely unprepared for an editorial meeting, I plucked an envelope from the inside pocket of my jacket and took a few notes on the back. By the time she’d reached page fifty, I had to unfold the piece of paper and write on the inside. Napkins came next.

We eventually reached the end of the manuscript and I wondered why she even bothered to tell me they were going to publish that piece of garbage.

But there was more to come. “Now, there’s a couple more things I need you to do.”

Good lord. More?

Wilted in my seat, I could barely raise my head. “What’s that?”

“Well, the word count is a hundred and forty thousand.”

140,000. Yep, that was about right. I wanted to produce a good, hefty book worthy of the aforementioned Stephen King.

She put down her pen. “I’d like you to pare it down by fifty thousand words.”

The number was staggering. 50,000! What she didn’t know, and I haven’t discussed here, is the fact that during the Pleistocene age, I finished The Rock Hole and hit save, only to see my computer screen go a nice shade of royal blue before two words appeared.

File Corrupted.

I didn’t know enough back then to save the work in another place back then, because I’d never heard that a 5½” floppy disk and my dinosaur program couldn’t hold several years of changes along with that much data. It was all gone, vanished in an electronic hiccup.

I re-wrote the entire manuscript from memory, so in essence she was asking me to delete 100,000 words.

I swallowed. What was I gonna say?


“Great. A good mystery usually comes in at around ninety thousand words. Maybe ninety-five, but no more.”

“You want me to take out whole chapters?”

“No. I have a suggestion, and I’m sure you’ll find the right way to delete the rest. Try removing most of the attributes such as ‘He said,’ ‘She asked,’ ‘He exclaimed,’ and such as that. It slows the pacing for the reader. Give your character something to do instead like, ‘Ned crossed his legs,’ ‘Norma Faye tucked a strand of hair behind her ear,’ or even, ‘Cody lit a cigarette,’ since it’s set in 1964 and Cody smokes.”

She knew Cody that well already.


“I can do that. What else?”

Pleased, Annette took a sip of iced tea and gave me a bright smile. “I’d like you to re-write the ending.”

Worn to a frazzle, a raised eyebrow was all I could manage.

She picked up the pen and tapped it on the pages. “You killed everyone off at the end.”

“They were supposed to die.”

“Right, but if they’re all dead, we can’t continue as a series. This won’t be a standalone novel. I’m offering you a three-book contract.”

They’ll want two more of these to mark up?

I didn’t realize she’d just offered me the brass ring without having to ride the merry-go-round.

“Find a way to keep them going, and by the way, tighten up your writing. By writing tight, you can show us everything we need to know with as little fat as possible.”

I write fat?

“Remove the fat, and welcome to our publishing company.”

Yep, she said I write fat.

I went home at the end of that weekend and started to carve away everything Annette thought was wrong with the book. The Delete Button removed the vast majority the attributions and I fleshed the characters out with actions, giving them personality, habits, and worry lines.

However, the work swelled again, because “he said” takes a lot less space than a description such as the one below:


Cody plucked a pack of Chesterfield’s from his shirt pocket, lipped one out, and lit it with a gold Zippo. “We have to be careful, Ned.”

Ned speaks, but we have even more to read.

Ned rubbed his bald head in frustration and glared at Cody. “I’god. I’m always careful. You’re the one who goes off half-cocked.”


But what just happened!?

Lordy mercy, I soon learned that an incredible amount of information can be delivered in just a few words. Cody smokes. He has style when he lips one out. You can imagine him shaking one free without me telling you that part. He carries a Zippo. Cody is cool.

Ned is older. Bald. Frustrated by what is happening around them, and even by Cody himself. Does he not like him smoking? Is he frustrated with Cody’s spontaneous action? Is that going to lead to some kind of twist?

This was great!

As the conversation continues, the pacing takes over, as well as the character’s voice and I found that I’d streamlined the storyline, much like the way Elmore Leonard wrote lean, mean, sparkling conversations. The slow, fatty conversations in the first manuscript woke up with fresh dialogue that people actually use.

In the last chapters, I came into my own. Here in the Third Act, crusty Judge O.C. Rains questions his old friend, Constable Ned Parker, about what happened in the dark river bottoms only an hour earlier. Exhausted by what he’d experienced that night, Ned is half-carried into the house and placed in a rocking chair in front of the fire by Deputy John Washington, who retreats to the kitchen when Judge Rains arrives.

I’ve changed the antagonists name to avoid spoilers.


O.C. knelt beside Ned. He put a hand on his friend’s knee and leaned forward to whisper in the constable’s ear. “Ned, was it Jack for sure?”

Slumped in the rocker, Ned had little energy to answer. “Yes.

“Did you do for him?


“Where is he?”

“With Cody.”

O.C. looked at his old friend for a long while, studying on what he might have done in the bottoms. “Is Cody all right?”

“Yes. I’m supposed to tell you something.”


“Jack got away.”

O.C. thought for a moment about the conflicting answers, and then understood. “It’s over.”


“But Jack’s gone.”

“That’s what I said.”

“This can’t come back.”

“It won’t.” Ned opened his eyes and they went flint hard. “Cody said. I believe him.”

“All right, then.”

“Something else.”


“Cody weren’t there…because of what was done down on the creek.”

O.C. rose. “All right, then.”


What had taken up almost four pages in the original manuscript was distilled down into a tense, revealing conversation stripped down to speed up the pace, and cut words at the same time.

I edited with a vengeance.

The word count dropped but I needed to cut more words that took up space and nothing else. That’s when I remembered something Stephen King said in his book titled, On Writing.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

I was never a big fan of adverbs (still not), so away they went as I tightened up The Rock Hole even more. Within a month, the book was 90,000 words and ready for publication, all because those quick lessons from a master editor.

It was an education I could have used years earlier.

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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at www.reaviszwortham.com. “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

41 thoughts on “Tighten Up

  1. Good morning, Rev. This one is a keeper. I’m bookmarking it. It should be given to everyone who ever wakes up one morning and says, “I think I’ll write a book.” It has everything in it from writing lessons to what to expect from an editor. Thanks for giving us in the present the lessons you needed then.

  2. Great post, Rev. Good advice. I thought you were going to make an analogy about tightening up the cinch on a saddle. Isn’t it true that sometimes you have to ride the horse a little and then tighten the cinch again. 50,000 words, that’s a lot of cinch. And finding that balance between an interesting narrative voice and a “tight” story, that’s a tough row to hoe. Thanks for your interesting story and comments.

  3. This was so great, I read it twice! Wise, a little humorous and so full of examples of what not to do. As well as what to do, or in this case, how to write. Thank you so much for sharing your experience so that the unpublished can learn from you.

    • I’m honored that you read this twice. Thanks so much for finding value in this post. I hope you continue to get something from my wanderings.

  4. Good morning, Rev. This takes me back. SleuthFest was one of my first conferences, and when I lived in Florida, was a standard. My first attempt at a novel also came in at 140K. I figured, the reader would get more words for the buck, and I always shopped for longer books. I think the final version was about 87K. (Although when rights reverted to me, I did put back one scene I’d cut–but at least I knew how to make it help the story, not simply sit there looking pretty.)
    I feel your pain at killing those darlings, but also the joy when you uncover the true story and characters.
    Thanks for sharing, and for the excellent writing advice for TKZers.

    • Good morning, Terry. And to others who have read this post and responded over the weekend, I was out in the woods of Northeast Texas with very little wifi. It looks like that might be an ongoing hazard with posting every other Saturday, but we’ll get through it.

      I think we all learn from the books we read. When I was working on my first manuscript, I was reading Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Cussler, and a number of other authors who sold by the pound. That shouldn’t have been an issue, though, because I’ve been a newspaper columnist for the past 33 years and have learned to write tight, fitting an entire story into 850-1,000 words. I just had to get my head in the right place.

    • Thank you, kind sir. It took a while to find this voice, because I wanted to write like other people. Once that clicked, and I wrote the same way I think, it began to work for me. Thanks for the wonderful comment.

  5. Ah, the good fortune of a good editor early in one’s career—though it comes with the cold sweats as you hear things like, “We’d like you to cut 50,000 words.” Ack! I was feeling it all right there with you, Rev. But the result! I love cutting fat and flab. One place to look is the words that begin dialogue. Many times we can cut words like “Yes” and “Well” and “Look” and lose nothing.

    • Good morning, James. I’ll need to write a post about all the repetitive words that still come up in my first drafts. There’s a whole list, and many odd words that are part of my stories at that particular time. Thanks for writing.

  6. Author stories like this one remind me that writing is not a fun game but a game for the determined. I almost wept when I read the part where you mentioned ‘file corrupted’ of 50k words project. But then I realised that happened many years ago, of which you’ve certainly learned never to let happen again.

    Thank you for writing this. The writing is compelling and entertaining. I couldn’t blink until I finished it. I’m sure going to keep it.

    • Thanks a lot for those wonderful comments, Stephen. It’s an honor to hear that I’ve touched readers of this blog in so many different ways. I’m glad these ramblings kept your attention all the way through, and I hope it helps in some future way.

      By the way, I lost 140,000 words, and not 50,000. You can bet that won’t happen again!


  7. Morning, Rev.

    You did it. Your teaser (w/o spoilers) intrigued me enough to buy the book.

    Short stories are good training ground for tight writing. I wrote dozens before I ever tackled a novel. There’s no room for extraneous fat in 2500-5000 words. Flash fiction (under 1000) requires even more discipline and ruthless chopping. It’s amazing how many words you can cut and still get the meaning across.

    Thanks for good lessons delivered with a chuckle.

      • I so agree with both of you. Writing flash helped me so much, letting me hone my voice, learn to write tight (still a work in progress), as well as earned me my first few online magazine publications, after years of trying to sell longer short stories.

    • Good morning!

      I didn’t realize I was sprinkling in teasers until you said that. Thanks so much for buying my first book (see, didn’t tease with the name). I hope you enjoy it. Writing short stories is hard for me, but I have a couple out, and one or two in a drawer. I know it’s a great training ground for writers, and I love to read them. I’m glad Saturday’s post made you grin. Hope it happens again. Thanks for writing.

  8. How to write tight is one of the most important skills, especially early in one’s career. Terrific post, Rev, and perfect examples.

    Hope you’re having an amazing weekend!

    • Howdy Sue! We had a great weekend in the country with my brother and his wife. Sometimes you need to get away and listen to the cicadas during the day, and millions of tree frogs at night. Keep writing tight!

  9. What a great story, Rev. Funny and so true. Loved your examples.

    I tend to be a minimalist in first draft, which means I need to put in details in the second and subsequent drafts, but I still need to trim. Minimalist isn’t the same in my experience as writing tight. Tightening is something I always need to work on.

    Thanks for another entertaining and insightful post. Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Morning, Dale.

      I wrote in a lot of fat in my first novel, but after that, I tightened up and now my first drafts tend to come in around 80,000 words. By the time I’m through the second, the manuscript swells to 90-95,000 as I flesh out the details and add spices to the stew. Thanks for your compliment on the post!

  10. You were very lucky you had such a generous editor to buy a book with so many problems. That happens very, very rarely these days. And, if you can cut a good chunk of your novel by paring sentences, you indeed write “fat.”

    I’ve only had one editor who wanted drastic cuts. She couldn’t really express what she wanted, but I finally figured out that she wanted my romantic adventure to become an adventure with romance. So ROMANCING THE STONE should become INDIANA JONES. I did it although it was weird that a romance publisher would want a book not to be a romance. Right about then, it became obvious to most of its authors that this publisher and editor didn’t know what they were doing, and the publisher imploded. The drastic cuts were a learning experience in genre, but I was happy not to have that book published.

    • I did, and do, have outstanding editors. Since I really didn’t know what I was doing, I listened to everything my first editor said, and she helped me a lot. I wish I’d dug in my heels once in the second Red River novel, Burrows. It’s a dark, claustrophobic story that some people find creepy as hell, and it’s packed with suspense all the way through. There was one chapter they urged, no, almost demanded that I take out. I did, because I thought they were always right, and now I regret it. If Burrows is re-released, it’ll go back in and then the scream/shiver/shudder-and-gag factor will double for that book.

      I’m looking forward to that day. Thanks for commenting!

  11. Wow. There must be something wrong with me. I already write so tight that I had to ADD to my new novel (currently with the publisher) in order to get it up to 87k words. However, the additions helped considerably. Mama always did say this Southern gal was a bit odd. (One thing I think I share with everyone, though, is getting rid of unnecessary “that” words in my manuscript. I try very hard to eliminate them as I go, but you know how it is. They just sneak in there when you least expect it like little cockroaches.)

    • RLM, nothing wrong with starting with a skeleton and adding layers of flesh and muscle as you go. That’s how I work also. My critique group always tells me where more is needed.

    • Brrrrr…. “that”

      I strive to eliminate it from everything I do, but the stinkin’ thing still creeps in, and almost did in this sentence. Another word I hear until I want to scream is “amazing.” I don’t see it much in print, but the word is overused in conversation these days and now has no meaning whatsoever.

      “You look amazing.”

      Gurk! One doesn’t look amazing…but I’ll do a thousand words on this subject if I don’t stop right now. Thanks so much for reading my posts!

    • Thanks, Jodie! I’m afraid I can’t help myself, and am always telling stories. Some are even true.

      Thanks for the link. I’m sure it’ll help some folks down the road.

  12. Great advice delivered with clear examples. And a story to boot. That’s a winning situation for your readers. Thank you, Rev.

    P.S. I’m going to re-read The Rock Hole with today’s story in mind.

  13. “Does this manuscript make me look fat?”

    Laughed out loud at much of this. Because it is so recognizable for so many of us. Thanks for the day brightener and good lesson.

    p.s. My editor told us our third book was too short. We went back and fleshed out some characterizations and it came in right on the mark at 95K. 🙂

    • Good morning, Kristy! Thanks for laughing, but there was really nothing that was supposed to be funny in the post that was supposed to be dead serious….

      Hope my voice and style of writing keeps you coming back. Thanks for writing, and keep pounding away on your own work!

  14. Late to the party as always on Saturday, but I loved this article, Rev! Great lessons for all of us and so entertaining.

    Like a few others here, I have a morbid fear of wordiness and have to add words rather than take them out. I can’t even imagine writing a 140K book.

    • You aren’t too late, Kay. It took me until this morning to answer everyone, since I was in a remote section of the Lone Star State all weekend. Thanks for reading my work, and for taking the time to reach out. By the way, I doubt I’ll ever write another 140K book.

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