Kahekili’s Revenge, Author’s Cut

Two years previously, Kalani‘ōpu‘u had invaded Maui anew with disastrous results. Over two days of fighting, he had lost thousands of men, including eight hundred warriors in two elite divisions known as the Ālapa and Pi‘ipi‘i. These men had set off early in the morning from Mā‘alaea Bay on Maui’s south shore, boasting that they would “drink the waters of Wailuku” by nightfall, only to be slaughtered to a man by late afternoon.

Once There Was Fire, Copyright 2016, Stephen Shender

Writing the first draft of a novel is an exercise in indulgence. Editing that first draft is an ordeal of painful choices: What to cut? What to preserve?

Okay, perhaps that’s a bit melodramatic. But an author’s words are his or her beloved “children,” and it’s hard for a writer who’s lived with them for years on end to decide which ones to save and which ones to abandon. That’s one of the reasons authors need editors.

I spent 11 years, 8 months laboring on the first draft of Once There Was Fire, my historical novel about old Hawaii. By the time I finished the draft, on July 18, 2015, I had written 235,000 words—enough to fill 770 pages. I knew something had to go.

Enter Jason Buchholz, the talented, freelance editor whom I hired to help me shape my sprawling, unwieldy draft into a more readable, more marketable novel. One of the many things I learned about novel writing from Jason was the importance of “through-lines.”

I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first, I’ll digress. It took me so many years and so many words to finish the first draft of Once There Was Fire because the story of Kamehameha the Great, who founded the Hawaiian Kingdom, had so captivated me. The narrative arc of Kamehameha’s life, from his birth in the Kohala District of the Big Island of Hawai‘i, circa 1748, to his death and its immediate aftermath in 1819, was epic—filled with fascinating, historical figures and dramatic events. This cornucopia of history was the roadmap for my novel, and as I wrote the first draft, I indulged a compulsion to gorge on all of it—especially where big, bloody battles were concerned. (And yes, I know that’s a guy thing. My beta reader, i.e., my wife, never tired of telling me how interminably booooring all these battle scenes were.) This brings me back to Jason’s through-lines.

Take another look at the passage from the published novel at the beginning of this blog post. An 8,800-word backstory—29 pages of indispensable prose—is subsumed in this 73-word paragraph. If you have the patience to read the first-draft account of the battle here, you’ll discover that Once There Was Fire’s main character, Kamehameha, is hardly to be found. (You’ll also learn that Kamehameha’s chief, Kalani‘ōpu‘u, considered him AWOL.) Kamehameha—what he does and what happens to him—is Once There Was Fire’s most important through-line. Jason, my editor, pointed out that any passage in my first draft that was only tangential to Kamehameha’s story and which had little or no bearing on it was a prime candidate for the editing shredder. Thus, the full story of Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s epic fail on Maui—my version of it anyway—never made it into the book. After nearly a year of tossing the manuscript back and forth, Jason and I managed to shorten the book by some 63,000 words. I mourned every one of them.

If you do take the time to read this extended account of the battle on Maui between Kahekili and Kalani‘ōpu‘u, please know that you’ll have enabled me to have my indulgence and my edits too. Mahalo!

(If you’re a glutton for literary punishment and would like to read more out-takes from Once There Was Fire, let me know. I’ve got tens of thousands more words to share!)

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