Elements of the story: when the novel is not a novel after all

Book- onstruction-sign copy

In the rough draft, the goal is to get the work out of your head, and the concepts onto the page. To that end, I advise you to just write, and try not to self-edit as you go, because you may lose your train of thought.

If we let ourselves drop into the zone, in the first draft we are in story-teller-mode, which is where our best work happens. Yes, our prose is uneven and may contain things we wish had been written by someone else, but all we were doing was getting the idea down:

Thus it was that On departing Billy’s Revenge on this particular job, Lackland and Mags had kept the conversation cordial and polite, but little of substance passed between them. Oh, They joked and laughed, and said all the things that as they would say to with any Rowdy that they were on a job working with, but it felt all wrong. Still, Even so, Lackland did not press for anything more from Lady Mags, although he was full of questions and desperate for answers. 

It’s okay write crap when you are just getting it on to paper. You have to get the basic ideas down before you can craft them into a proper novel or short-story. (That drivel was from the rough draft of my 2010 nanowrimo manuscript. I can get rid of at least 24 words in that paragraph, and although I did replace several words, losing the fluff made it stronger.)

Remember, the rough draft–the first draft–is the proto-story, the just-born infant that is the child of your creativity. You do the shaping when you come back to it in the second draft. Some will stay, and some will go.

This weekend I discovered that one of my works in progress is not really a novel after all.

It was at 85,000 words, but it has occurred to me that it is a novella, because in the first half of the book, 4 chapters don’t advance the protagonist’s story. When I am done weeding it out, the ms may only top out at about 50,000 words.  In some circles that is a novel, but in fantasy, it is half a book.

Still, I’m not going to try to force it to be any longer than it is, because I have nothing of value to add to the tale. I would much rather be known for having written a strong novella than a weak novel. So, now at the end of the rough draft, this book must become a novella.

Those four cut chapters total about 16,000 words. Add to that the words that will be weeded out in the second draft and I would say its going to lose a lot more weight–perhaps another 8,000 to 10,000 words. But why do I think this? Because I am just finishing the rough draft and I have realized several things:

  1. __Hell's Handbasket__400 1Besides the four chapters that must go since they don’t belong there anymore, 3 more chapters are mostly background that doesn’t need to be in the finished product. When I went in and removed large chunks of exposition I was able to condense those 3 chapters into 1 that actually moved the story forward.
  2. Add to that the fact that in the rough draft we will always have a lot of words we can cut (or find alternatives for), words and phrases that weaken our narrative:
  • There was
  • To be

I will also make some contractions, ‘was not’ becomes ‘wasn’t,’ ‘has not becomes hasn’t,’ etc.

It’s amazing how many times we can simply cut some words out, and find the prose is stronger without them. Many times they need no replacement.

Sometimes we use what I think of as “crutch” words. You can really lower your word-count when you look at each instance and see if you can get rid of these words. These are overused words that fall out of our heads along with the good stuff as we are sailing along:

  • so,
  • very,
  • that,
  • just,
  • so,
  • literally
  • very

But back to one of my current works-in-progress: why am I cutting an 85,000 word MS down to 50,000 or so words?

800px-Singapore_Road_Signs_-_Temporary_Sign_-_Detour.svgA lot of what I have written is good work, but as I said, several long passages don’t advance my protagonist’s tale. They pertain to a different character’s story set in that world–so they were a rabbit-trail to nowhere in the context of this tale. However, those passages will come in handy later if I choose to write that character’s story, so I am saving them in file labeled “Out Takes.”

The fact is, you must be willing to be ruthless. Yes, you may well have spent three days or even weeks writing that chapter. But now that you are seeing it in the context of the overall story arc, you realize it is bogging things down, and NO–Sometimes there is no fixing it. Just because we wrote it does not mean we have to keep it.

In genre fiction, no matter how much you like the prose you have just written for a given chapter, if the chapter does not advance the story, it must go. The story arc must not be derailed, and sometimes amputation is the only cure.

The Story Arc copy


Filed under Publishing, writer, writing

3 responses to “Elements of the story: when the novel is not a novel after all

  1. David P. Cantrell

    It’s a tough lesson to learn. I feel like I’m committing murder sometimes.


  2. Stephen

    Apparently it’s not easy to write a novel if you’re a nice guy.


  3. That is so true! Slash and burn!