Outside of blog posts and my novel, most of my writing these days turns into short stories. Usually the combination of two or more ideas—be they characters, situations, themes, etc.—will spark something I want to express, and my goal is to twist those ideas in a new, interesting way.
For speculative fiction, which is generally what I write, the short story is an essential form. With this format writers can wrap the kernel of some great idea in a tight little package, and do it quickly and efficiently enough that the reader doesn’t have time to get bored. Usually a short story is meant to be punchy enough and gripping enough that the reader will not put it down without finishing it.
Consequently when I edit short stories I find myself cinching everything down, stripping out all extraneous detail that doesn’t turn the story (the kernel) in crucial and compelling ways. The idea should roll out naturally and passionately and there should be no lulls in the story. So when it comes to economy of prose, I get ruthless.
The phrase “kill your darlings”, clichéd as it is, remains a good maxim. It’s easy to fall in love with little phrases, descriptions, or dialogue that were written spontaneously and turned out pleasing. But if these darlings are just aesthetically pleasing and they aren’t crucial to the unfolding of the story, they must be removed. People don’t generally read short stories for aesthetically pleasing descriptions; they want a story. If they just wanted pleasing sentences, they can read poetry.
Usually when I come up with a short story I will outline it thoroughly so that I know all the essential elements of the telling, then I will overwrite my first draft, including anything that comes to mind. But when it comes time to edit, I can usually strip away a substantial amount of what I’ve written. It is common for me to pare down the word count of my first draft by a third. I take out anything extraneous, condense scenes by making them more efficient, and tighten up the sentences because I want my idea expressed in short order.
For the past few months I’ve been slowly editing my first novel Residuum, which I wrote for NaNoWriMo. I was surprised to find that going from a rough first draft to a fine first draft, my word count expanded considerably. This has to do with the form. If people decide to take on a whole novel, they have decided to invest more of their time for a fuller expression of ideas, so I try to make each element as full and satisfying as possible.
While I think the reader of a novel will be more forgiving of a less terse style of prose, there is still no excuse for inefficiently rolling out the story for them. Many darlings have been killed in the making of my novel. I still want to tell the story in a relentless way while giving the ideas room to grow and fulfill themselves in a way that feels natural to me.
A novel is much more weighty, can deal with bigger issues in a more detailed way, and I think my first rough draft left many subplots and minor interests unresolved. Particularly in my third act, the seeds that were planted in the early parts of the book need to come to fruition in a more satisfying way. I find it hard to add to a draft. It’s much easier to take stuff out.
I found that I took short cuts, leaving out secondary ideas to emphasize the main, A-story. But in a novel of any length, a reader should be interested in more than just the central protagonist. I’ve taken the time to set up the world and flesh out the secondary and tertiary characters, so I owe it to myself to see their storylines through to completion.
When I was participating in NaNoWriMo last November, the goal was fifty thousand words in one month. It was a bit of a struggle to make that word count while working a day job, but that made it more satisfying when the end of the month came and I had made it. But I kept writing at that point because the story wasn’t finished.
In my hurry to write, I narrowed my focus to the main protagonist and the spine of the story while some of the supporting ideas and characters didn’t receive fair page-time. Looking back on how I treated those secondary parts of the novel, I feel like I was half-assing it. I kept writing after November and ended with a word count of around sixty-one thousand words. Then, because I had my head so far up my first pass, I handed it off to one trusted friend to read.
It’s not difficult to maintain objectivity when writing; it’s impossible. Having an outsider read it who is very familiar with science fiction and “novels of ideas” was absolutely crucial. He pointed out many of the gaps where I hurried through things and posed questions to me. A few conversations back and forth and some detailed notes (for which I owe him in a big way) highlighted the flaws in my first pass.
The second pass, which will bring me to what I refer to as my “first draft”, already sits at over seventy-seven thousand words. The whole book has expanded by about 25% so far, and I still have the last fifty pages to work through. These final pages are where many of the unresolved plot elements need to be, so I expect the word count to climb up as high as eighty-five thousand.
It surprised me to be putting in so much when I’m used to taking out. The editing process for the novel has involved a good deal of rewriting, plus brand new writing, even the addition of completely new chapters. I imagine this is a blunder because it’s my first novel. Next time I will outline more fully, considering the ideas underlying the story. I expect that the edit of my second novel will find me stripping away the fat, cutting flowery prose, and returning to the ruthlessness of my short story editing. We’ll see.
P.S. Next week will be my first week off from the blog. I will be without a computer for a couple days and doubt I will have time to prepare anything, so there will be no post. Enjoy your Canada Day weekend and try not to be too depressed when there is no new pretentious nonsense to read here. – ERS