Essay–Cutting and Culling
Fiction writers create tales. These tales end up as drabbles, short-stories, novelettes, or novels. Some of them end up in the trash, some end up being published.
But there’s more than stories at work here. There are sentences, paragraphs, or maybe entire chapters that end up being written along the way that might never see the light of day. Scott Sigler recently posted that he threw away nearly 60k words on his latest GFL novel. 60k words! For me, that nearly an entire novel. Why the hell would he do such a thing?
Long works are difficult for me. They require much more focus and the stories rarely leap out of my mind. I have to spend time considering how the characters fit together with the basic story. In addition, I’m by and large a discovery writer. That doesn’t mean I don’t create outlines; but outlines rarely survive engagement with the actual art of writing.
Flames has been an interesting experience for me. The novel is maybe half finished at this point. But I threw away the first attempt at the book. I just plain dropped nearly 20k words. Why? They didn’t work.
I love my imaginary friends. I love how they talk, how they move through their world, and what I learn from them. But sometimes the tale itself is simply broken. It served as a prototype to show me how I needed to construct the story and what the story actually was.
I spent some time yesterday writing summaries for six chapters, going through the main points I needed to hit to keep things moving and raise the tension. It was the first time I’d done that in many many years. It was also infinitely helpful.
A chapter summary is not what I think of as an outline. It’s my brain playing with situations to see if they logically lead to a result. I summarize. I erase. I revise. I summarize. At the end, I had scribbled pages of possibilities together. I ripped out the ones that didn’t make sense and ended up with six pages (one per chapter) that did make sense. After that, I cranked out nearly 3500 words on two chapters. I still have four more chapters to go and I’m sure the words will be there when I want them.
Throwing away what you’ve created is not easy. Shit, this writing thing takes time, and time is damned precious when you run two companies, one of which depends on your writing, and have a dayjob. I can always make more money or tighten my belt, but I can’t ever recover the time I’ve spent putting words on the page. Admitting to yourself that a creative endeavor just plain didn’t work is difficult. But sometimes it has to be done.
I have dozens of dead tales in my files. Some of them might eventually be turned into good stories. Hell, maybe one might end up being a best-seller. But they didn’t work at the time and I didn’t want to stop writing just to try and figure out if they were salvageable. The same goes for dead chapters, dead-end characters, and terminally ill dialogue.
Throwing away the words that do not work is a must. You have to learn how to let go to make a story work. If there’s too much fluff, the story slows to a crawl. If there are too many action scenes, you can overwhelm the reader and lose track of the story. These are all fine lines and it takes a lot of experience to know when it’s time to toss the stuff that doesn’t work.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find them early. If you’re not, you have to wait until the editing process to toss them and then shore up the rough edges left behind. Either way, you can’t be afraid to be wrong, to make mistakes, and to write dead-ends. They will always be there and they will always cause problems.
Before the POD and e-book “revolution,” publishers had hard and fast rules about minimum word counts. All of that is changing. At Mile-Hi Con, I was part of a panel with a number of sci-fi fantasy editors. They all agreed that POD and e-books were fantastic because maybe writers in their favorite genres would stop writing good books that ended up being door-stops full of wasted words because that’s what the publishers demanded.
So cut. Cut. Cut. Closet Treats weighed in at 70k words and it’s considered a “short” novel. I’m not sure I want to shoot for more words than that. Why? I like stories that drag you kicking and screaming past your bedtime because you want to finish them. I slow the pace just enough to let you catch your breath, and then pull you back into the crazy. Those are the books I love to read and that’s how I try to write my own.
Regardless of whether or not I always succeed in those attempts, it’s what I’m going for. I know I’m not alone in being tired of the crap-filled doorstops that waste so much time on scenery or world-building when they could be faster paced and more character intensive. So I throw away the chaff and work on making the rest of the book that much better.
I’ve no doubt there will be more sentences, paragraphs, hell, even chapters dropped from Flames before it’s published. It’s a necessary part of the process. But you need to learn how to throw in the towel. Every word you write in a story is another word along the journey. Like any journey, there are false starts, wrong turns, unnecessary bathroom breaks, and stops along the way to refuel. Remember that the journey is the most important part. Make it a good one. And make sure you hide the reader from your mistakes. Not everything you write will be great, nor does it need to be. But everything you publish or submit should be as tight as you can make it. And if that means throwing away a few thousand words, it’s damned well worth it.