A Lengthy Discussion

Apologies for the absence of recent posts, I’ve been busy on a quick-turnaround short story for Black Library. Never fear though, the experience has jostled a few new thoughts in my grey matter and so here I am again!

I’ve mentioned previously that a narrative has a certain proper length. Stretch a story into too many words and it seems thin or padded; pummel too long a story into too few words and it can be rushed or clumsy.

I’ve recently run into this on both of my last two Black Library projects. With Shadow King, the projected word count was 100,000 words, and I knew at the synopsis stage that it would be tight fitting in everything. The short story I’ve just written was 5,000 words, and it came in just over that – close enough not to be a problem, I hope. I know from talking to other authors that getting everything into the word count can be one of the biggest challenges of writing.

The short story experience was an interesting one. Most BL short stories range from 8,000 to up to 15,000 words. I’m usually pretty bang-on the target with those. (There was one particular story a few years back when I sent in two versions of the same story, one on the word count and one about 3,000 words longer, and I gave the editor the option of which was better – the longer version was used…) For the short stories I’ve been writing as part of a little internet group I’m in, I rarely get above the 4-5,000 word mark. I’m not quite sure why it is that my 40K and Warhammer stories stretches so far while my other fiction doesn’t… I suspect the action quotient has something to do with it. There’s nothing like a big battle to eat up a good chunk of the word count!

How Much Can I Fit In?

The longer a piece of fiction, the more layers it should have. A 500 word piece of ‘flash’ fiction (or ‘postcard’ fiction as one friend likes to call it) is little more than a concept piece, pretty much dependent on a killer twist or a one-line gag. It’s very much like the old Future Shock strips of 2000AD – the protagonist is the last man/ woman on Earth, god was an alien, the spy was the rat creature all along, etcetera etcetera.

As a story lengthens, the requirements for additional characterisation, a deeper setting and a more complex plot increase. I find that this increase can be exponential – one cannot simply add an extra 3,000 words of plot, stories don’t work that way. Of course, sometimes one reads a story that feels like there’s been extra work done on the setting or character development, but often that strays back into padding.

For this reason one learns the possibilities and constraints attached to the proposed word count. At synopsis stage the emphasis is usually placed on the plot, and it’s only during the actual writing when that characterisation and setting development grow that one realises that there’s too much story to write in the space available. This becomes more and more pronounced the longer the projected piece. Secondary characters and sub-plots take on a life of their own, scenes that seemed short in the synopsis end up being more involved and longer than imagined and so forth.

Of course, the vagaries of synopsis writing must be taken into account, particularly where action is involved. If the synopsis says simply ‘They have a fight’ or ‘They argue over the best course of action’, that could encompass anything from a short scene to an epic struggle of several thousand words! I am left drawing the conclusion, once again, that the more information one can put into the synopsis, the more accurate one can determine how the final writing will progress. Think very carefully about the scenes, try to picture how much action or dialogue it will entail.

Knowing Where You’re Going

The other thing I have learnt is to plan short, particularly for novels. Whilst writing, it is so easy to expand a scene, add in extra sub-plots and characters, that the story will grow considerably. If possible, anticipate these expansions as much as possible as early as possible so that if needed they can be reined back or space made by cutting or shortening other scenes.

The other necessity is to keep a tight check on oneself while writing. If you start off down too many side paths you’ll find that the central plot isn’t advancing as it should, which will lead to problems later. Not only will the story get bogged down, you will find it impossible to follow all of the threads you’ve unravelled (and so will your readers).

If this is happening it’s time to examine why. Perhaps these unplanned side trips are simply more fun to write, in which case they are probably darlings and need to be killed – your job as a writer is to tell the main story in the best way possible. A more serious problem might be that the plotted story just isn’t as engaging as it should be. Rather than distracting yourself (and the reader) from this fact with digressions, go back to the plan. What is lacking that you feel is being fulfilled by the expansion of secondary characters and sub-plots? Has the pace become stale, or the characters predictable? Do you need to cut that character-building scene in favour of moving the story forward?

All of this can be multiplied considerably if you are the sort of writer that writes straight off-the-cuff. Most of my non-BL stories are written this way, with only the vague points of plot and character worked out in advance. When one is making it up as one goes along, it’s all too easy to be distracted and lose track of what the story was intended to be. I think a reason for the disparity between the length of my Black Library stories and others may be down to this, but in reverse. When writing without a formal plan, I keep a very tight grip on the sideshows of the story, while I allow myself more wriggle room in a story with an agreed synopsis and word count. It is quite possible that I need to enjoy the freedom a little more when writing in an unplanned way. After all, who knows what scenic gems have been stifled before they were created. In you write this way, then the edit is paramount, as I’ll explain next.

Triumvirate of Virtue

The biggest battlefield for content and word length is not in the writing but in the editing and rewriting. With the story in a complete state one can go back and look at the whole piece and see what parts contributed towards the final resuly and which ended up as pointless diversions. If the story is longer than intended (or commissioned!) wield the knife carefully but ruthlessly to get it back into shape. Even if it’s the right length, don’t assume that all of the words you’ve written deserve to be in the final manuscript. In some cases scenes might need tightening up, in others you might need to get rid of the scene entirely.

I’ve started to apply simple criteria during this process, going back to earlier posts on plot, character and setting. Every scene – every scene – needs to contribute something to all three of these story elements. They may not all be represented in the same proportion every time, but every sentence and paragraph and line of dialogue needs to pull its weight. A scene that only develops character, for instance, needs to be reworked so that it also draws on the setting and furthers the plot. A scene that only moves the plot along needs to build the characters and explore the setting. Scenes can be folded into each other so that they become layered, rather than a straightforward 1-2-3 of plot-based scene, character-based scene and setting-based scene.

By doing this, the writing becomes tighter – and shorter. This does not mean one compromises on language purely for the sake of word count. Sometimes dialogue will be long, a description will take up a lot of words, but in the context of the piece make sure it isn’t doing a redundant job. For example, is there a smarter way to interleave some setting description with the dialogue hand-in-hand. This will lead to richer prose, and will hopefully avoid the reader simply skipping ahead with a mental ‘blah-blah-description-blah-blah’ that I sometimes find myself doing with flabby writing.

In short, get to the point. From the emergence and resolution of the central conflict to the development of sub-plots and the enrichment of the setting, focus on the words and make sure they are doing their job in the best, and most efficient, way.

Real World

First up, I’d like share that my friend Matt ‘The Chief’ Keefe has a short story in the latest Hub magazine. You can find The Astronomer of Baghdad here.

Reading: Finished Man Plus and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was a bit concerned at the somewhat dry start but it gets really involved, a showcase of science fiction writing being about the characters not the science. Have now just started Nation by Terry Pratchett.

Watching: Lost is back! Hurrah! I’ve been really looking forward to this, and it’s been great so far. I’ve also been watching Being Human on BBC3, though I am as yet undecided. It’s very British, a sort of supernatural This Life. The metaphors are a bit heavy-handed and obvious, but it’s written with wit and nice characterisation so I’m sticking with it for the moment. The actor who plays George has a strange Jack Davenport-esque way of speaking that is a little off-putting but sometimes very engaging. Plus, you have to support a show whose pitch must have been something like: It’s about a ghost, a werewolf and a vampire sharing a house in Bristol.

Listening To: Went on a bit of a iTunes binge in January, and having recently added the music channels back to my Sky package have found some new favourites. I’m trying very hard not to be a thirty-something by comparing every band unfavourably to the ones that have come before. Have got Dog Days Are Over by Florence and the Machine stuck in my head most of the time and love listening to it in the car.

Gaming: Finally succumbed to peer pressure and signed up for Xbox live. Call of Duty (both Modern Warfare and World at War) have been consuming my evenings, and am really enjoying Left 4 Dead with my mates. Who doesn’t want to star in a Zombie movie?

Published in: on February 10, 2009 at 2:19 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. great advice, thank you 🙂


  2. very intresting


  3. Stephen King on editing: “Your second draft should be your first draft minus ten percent.”


    • It very much depends on your first draft. I allow for a 10% increase in length usually, as my first drafts are almost always too light on description and scenes need expanding…


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