The Deepest Cut

Come October With Us
Come October With Us

Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, on sale NOW! Get your copy of the book Ben Loory called “Watership Down for whales.” Come meet author Suhail Rafidi at the book launch celebration on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117)

Last week, Suhail Rafidi fielded questions about the editorial process for Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey. Here, the discussion turns to the specific matter of editorial cuts. We got a story from Suhail that we did not expect…

So you rewrote Cetus Finalis ten times. Does your editor Ryan see every draft?
No, I’m not that pampered. But out of personal interest, he reads about 3 or 4 of the drafts, mostly at the later stages.

Does your editor make a lot of cuts?
It depends on the project. He is true to the art, and cuts deeper than I ever would. He wants to see the vision of the book brought forth as vividly as possible. A good editor makes a great book possible.

cutskiThat’s a half-assed answer…
Yes, I’ve known him to make a lot of cuts. And when it’s time for that, my feelings don’t matter, the art does. My feelings can matter after the edits. The very first time we worked together, he was reading an early draft of TJ & Tosc. The first thing he did was throw away the beginning 15 pages, and say “This part is boring. Start here. Drop us right into the action.” I was stunned, but impressed. He was right and I never would have seen it.

I will tell you the deepest cut he ever made, and it may elucidate one of the reasons Cetus Finalis has been years in the making. Once, I think it was the 6th draft or so, I handed my editor a 170 page manuscript of Cetus Finalis. He gave me back 52 pages, saying, “This is the best part. Start over.”

Why did he cut that much?
He said, “This 50 pages is literature. The whole book has to be like this.”

Cut Chair, by Peter Bristol
Cut Chair, by Peter Bristol

Wow. What was in those 118 cut pages?
It doesn’t matter, ultimately. But since you asked: Cetus Finalis originated as a parallel story, an American Revolution historical fiction style book. Originally, two parallel storylines followed a pod of whales and a village of fisherfolk whose lives intersected at two critical junctures, at the beginning and end of the book. My editor cut out all of the human storyline. He said that he was experiencing his humanity more vividly through the whales than through the human characters, so get rid of the humans. Make it a whale story, a real whale story. Make the humans just one encounter with another species, just like all the other ones in the whale narrative. He was right. It made for a much more beautiful and otherworldly finished novel. But it also gave me a lot more work to do.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an editor cutting that much…
tantrumI was pissed, I’ll admit, but he was right. For a couple of days, I could barely talk to him. And he was staying at my house, so it was a little awkward. [Laughs.] In my mind, I was thinking, How could you cut so much? Did you even read it?! He was patient with my artistic moodiness.  He even let me throw a little tantrum a couple of days later. “Oh, that’s what’s bothering you?” The tantrum ended when I said, “I can ignore the changes you make any time I want to, but I trust your judgement.” He came to San Francisco to read the book. It would have been foolish of me to ask for his help then not accept it. Despite everything, the cuts improved the book. He takes personal interest in my work, and reads it thoroughly or not at all, with a keen eye for the story’s vision. Thank you, Ryan Hurtgen! I know you’re out there.

Learn a great deal more about whales, and Cetus Finalis, at the author’s website,

Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, on sale NOW! Get your copy of the book Ben Loory called “Watership Down for whales.” Please join Suhail Rafidi for the book launch celebration on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117)


The Editorial Skein

Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey. New book by Suhail Rafidi. September 2016.Last week, Suhail Rafidi discussed the significant amount of rewriting entailed in completing Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey. Another essential factor of writing a novel for consumption by a paying audience is a good editor. There comes a time in every large writing project when the writer is in too deep, and needs the wayfinding insight of a good editor. In this week’s installment of Cetus Finalis propaganda, Suhail Rafidi answers more detailed questions about his editorial process, and his editor.

What does an editor do?
An editor pares away the junk of a book so the author’s vision can shine through. The author knows what they want the reader to see, but there so much extra junk in the author’s mind that invariably makes its way onto the page. The editor steers it ever back to the clearest vision of the story.

Why is an editor so important?

One Of The Ways It Works
One Of The Ways It Works
There comes a time in the process of writing a book when the author becomes too close to the work, too embroiled in the minutiae, and can lose perspective of the wholeness of the book, the totality of the story arc. A good editor will look at the work as a discerning outsider, with no sympathy for the invisible desires and motivations that can convolute the manuscript. A good editor can tell you honestly what needs to be cut (usually a lot), or about a character “I need to know what she’s thinking right now,” or about a scene, “This is weak storytelling.” Writers don’t typically like to listen to truths like that, but I feel it makes all the difference.

Learn more at ryanhurtgen.comTell me something about your editor. Who is he? How did you find him?
My editor is Ryan Hurtgen. He is a composer living in Los Angeles, and one of my personal heroes. We met as strangers in Nashville in 2009 and formed our very own two man writing group. We could tell right off that we had compatible aesthetic sensibilities, and that was the magic formula for editing each other’s work. We could look at the work as disinterested and critical audience members, instead of the creator who still has a crush on his work. That was a big deal, and goes a long way to creating a finished product fit for mass consumption.

asleepingreenAt the time Ryan was composing Rene Breton’s debut album, Asleep In Green, which was released with a companion book of short stories. We agreed to exchange labor. He edited TJ & Tosc, and I edited Asleep In Green. When we began working together, we did not know each other, and we only got together to work on writing. After that, a friendship grew, helped considerably by our compatible aesthetic sensibilities. I mention the bit about not choosing a pre-existing friend as an editor because I think it is important to select an editor who does not know you as a person, because they’ll pay more attention to the writing then to you. They are more likely to be honest about the book’s audience and less likely to pull punches about how to improve your work.

Tune in next week when Suhail reveals a flabbergasting story about the deepest cut his editor ever made, and how he dealt with it. Learn a great deal more about whales, and Cetus Finalis, at the author’s website,

The Art Of Rewriting (Or, The Ten Drafts Of Cetus Finalis)

Lots of this...Many readers are writers themselves, and take interest in the creative process of other writers. There is a substantiated rumor that Suhail Rafidi’s upcoming novel, Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, was written and rewritten ten times. Or in Carl Sagan speak: A one with one zero after it. Ten times sounds like an exaggeration for effect, so we went to the source. We asked Suhail Rafidi if he actually rewrote the same book 10 times:

Yes, I actually wrote Cetus Finalis 10 times; though I don’t think it’s all that surprising. Any writing instructor will tell you that the bulk of writing is rewriting.

draftHow do you know when one draft is over and another begins?
Because I start at the beginning each time. What I consider a “draft” of a novel comes in two layers, or coats. The first draft is just that, a kind of soup stock. Once it’s written, I number it 1 and print it. Once printed, I begin reading the manuscript for rewriting.

What happens next?
For the first coat, I put the manuscript on my workstation with a blank notebook next to it. Then I read the manuscript with a colored pen, one word at a time, and mark it up, change things, delete things, rewrite things, add things. If the edits fit in the margins, I write them there. If I make a larger addendum – a paragraph or some pages – I inscribe a number with a circle around it on the manuscript. Then I write the same number in the adjacent notebook and compose the passage there.

Open notebook with a ballpoint pen in the centerYou still hand write your drafts? Why?
For the first coat, yes. I feel that I maintain considerably more focus when using a pen and paper. Though the power of desktop computing can’t be understated, holding a stylus and marking the page is an ancient human physical practice. I think it will take longer than a century or two to displace the efficacy of that writing process. Dante had no word processor.

writingSo, who types it up?
I do. Once the manuscript is read and marked up, and the notebook filled with new writing, I take the marked up manuscript and the notebook to my computer. I open the original file of the draft and enter in all the changes, now laying the second coat of the same draft. During the second coat, I do not read every word of the manuscript, I just enter the changes. Sometimes while entering the changes, I make a few more. So, the second coat does allow for that.

So every one of your drafts is TWO drafts?!
I don’t see it that way, but I understand what you mean. I don’t consider a draft done until it is ready to be printed out of the computer again. After I finish entering all the hand written changes, I save the file as the next draft, number it 2. Then print and repeat; on to the next draft.

And you got all the way to draft 10 doing it that way?

How much of a change is there between drafts?
Sometimes it is rather drastic; others less. I can’t keep a lot of what I write. The stuff I can’t keep often needs to be rewritten. To give the changes a sense of proportion: the 6th draft of Cetus Finalis contained 42 new numbered passages in the notebook, in addition to the markups I made on the pages. The 7th draft contained 37 addenda. The 8th draft contained 11.

Drafts of Galatea, by Rachel Swirsky
Drafts of Galatea, by Rachel Swirsky

Tune in next time when Suhail Rafidi goes into more detail for aspiring writers about editing Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, including discarding rewrites, the role of his editor, and the editorial process which refines a novel’s relentless rewriting.

Learn a great deal more about whales, and Cetus Finalis, at the author’s website,

World-Building & Whale Research

Come October With Me
Come October With Me

Party Note: Mark your calendars! Join the celebration at Suhail Rafidi’s Cetus Finalis book launch on Sunday October 2nd, 3:00-6:00 PM, at San Francisco landmark Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117) Remember, “book launch” is nerdspeak for “party,” so plan on drinks at the cash bar, autographs, and laughs.

This week we’ve got a fascinating tidbit about the world-building in Suhail Rafidi’s latest novel, Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey. Also, why Cetus Finalis is unlike other books about whales or whaling.

Aside from children’s books, most books about whales are about whaling. (For example, there is a good book about whaling called Leviathan, by Eric Jay Dolan. It goes into considerable and engrossing detail about the whaling industry in America, from colonial times to the Gilded Age.) But Cetus Finalis, though it involves an encounter with whaling, is not about whaling. It is about whales.

hope-orca-skeletonMany research and biological texts about whales are about their ecological placement, feeding patterns, and vocalizations. A small but growing body of research exists regarding whale communication, social patterns, and the contents and meanings of their songs. We do have superficial observational knowledge of some of their more conspicuous feeding and mating behaviors. But Cetus Finalis is something more than all of these, a novel which deals with the whales in their world, on their terms.

Gray whale at Anacapa Island, California (Courtesy of

Creating a world for whales on their terms, yet comprehensible to humans, required certain considerations. With an oral history millions of years long, whales may have some brand of cosmology, some stories about where the world, and whales, came from. The trick for Suhail Rafidi with Cetus Finalis was inhabiting whaledom enough to come up with plausible, yet inaccurate (or are they?) stories about the origins of whale reality.

treeFor example, in whale cosmology, the dominant life forms on dry land are the trees. Trees are the largest living things on land, they cover a great deal of it, and they seem to bring life with them. Since ships (at this historical moment) are still all made of wood, the notion that whalers somehow serve trees is reinforced. To say more would give away too much.

Learn a great deal more about whales, and Cetus Finalis, at the author’s website,

The San Francisco book launch is on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117). Mark your calendars and join the fun!