As I type this, I’m printing out the complete first draft of Epitaph. Getting all the way to the end of the story was an excuse for a low-key celebration on Friday evening: a margarita and dinner at Applebee’s, not the champagne and four-star restaurant you might have imagined. I felt a mild sense of relief: “There. It exists. Now all I have to do is make it shorter and better.”

Six months ago, I set a goal of writing 500 words a day, to be able to finish the first draft by June. I missed that self-imposed deadline by about three weeks. Now I have to go into reverse, trimming 500 words a day: tightening the prose word by word and the story page by page.

The first draft weighed in at 197,888 words. Figure 380 words per printed page, and that would be a 520-page novel, if it were published in its present form. I want to cut about 30,000 words. That will bring the book down to 440 pages, which is a little longer than Doc. Children of God was also slightly longer than The Sparrow. The hope is that the sequel will stand on its own, but that means finding graceful ways to reestablish some of the points made in the original. Doc is sick, Wyatt can’t read, this is not your father’s Western. That kind of thing.

I do a lot of editing along the way. Every sentence, paragraph, section and chapter gets obsessive attention before I move on. Once I know what the complete story looks like, some passages aren’t as important as I thought they’d be when I wrote them. The task now is to cut every unnecessary word and to eliminate whole sections of unnecessary prose.

This is the part of the process I like best. There’s a kind of jubilation when I find something big and fat I can slice out, but I also take great satisfaction in removing single words. It’ll be scalpel and chainsaw for the next few months!