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Friday, September 3, 2010

Less and More

During the MLS contest I marveled at the obsession with word counts. Having never counted my words, I didn't understand the big whoop. I don't plan my stories ahead of time; it shuts me down. I have a goal, I aim and I write. When I hit it, I'm done.

I do revise. Writing the way I do, I have to, but those revisions are generally adding words in the form of description, and almost never major plot revisions. That, to my understanding, is weird. Most writers can't do that. I don't know why. Maybe their real lives get in the way of their imaginary ones.
In the year or so since I've taken up the writing gauntlet again, I'm learning why editors are obsessed with word counts. Sometimes a story is so thin it can be told in 80K words (or fewer). Anything more is fluff.

Wow. Could I be more arrogant? I'll try.

If the skill isn't there yet, more words are a bad thing. More words don't get the job done. They slog up the pace and confuse the reader and generally get in the way.

For all those critique partners who might read this, I am not talking about your stories. I've been looking at all kinds of stuff over the past year, and I have no particular person or story in mind. If anything, I'm remembering some of last year's contest entrants and comparing them with things I've read more recently.

It is about skill. George MacDonald conveys in any of his 20 page short stories more wisdom and eternal truth than I could in three books of 300 pages. That is the mark of a true master writer and thinker.

Dare I say it? It's not what you have, it's how you use it. More words won't solve the problem if the story is weak, or the skill is lacking. But I would also say fewer words aren't always the solution, either. I've run my way through books before and arrived panting at the last page and wishing I'd had a moment to look around and enjoy what just happened.

One thing I've learned to watch out for is author assumptions. Just because I can see the scene in my head doesn't mean I've conveyed it accurately to the reader. I remember having to rewrite a scene in Star Of Justice because I realized after the fact this was the first time two of the characters had ever met, and I'd completely failed to acknowledge it (Raven and Gamaliel, for those who've read the book). In my brain, I'd already moved on to what happens later. I had to pause and pay attention to "the now."

This is where I would encourage an author to have different people/non-writers read their mss and ask questions. I would also warn an author to consider those questions very carefully. If someone is asking them, it's because you haven't made the answers clear in your writing. This is not the time to explain what you were trying to convey. You won't be in the room with your readers while they're reading. Your real readers won't be able to ask you what you meant. Make sure all the info they will want or need is clearly on the page.

I flesh out my worlds, but that is what I like to read. I want the details. But those details have a purpose. Sometimes they set the scene. Sometimes they convey important information. Sometimes they clarify and sometimes they intentionally muddle the picture so the later surprise is more surprising. On occasion, they get in the way, and that's when they have to go.

Finding the balance is a measure of your skill.

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