Sunday, April 17, 2011

To cut, or not to cut?

A big problem for a prospective author is how best to tell the story.  Sounds kinda self-evident, but it's not as easy as it sounds.  Earlier in my blog I talked about my efforts to avoid describiness, the word I made up to describe the problem some epics like the Wheel of Time series face.  Robert Jordan's (R.I.P., grand master!) biggest flaw, to my opinion, besides some horribly over-stereotyped characterizations and a couple of noticeable asspulls, as well as...well, never mind all that.  Robert Jordan's problem that I'm going to talk about in this post is that he tended to dwell in a land of describiness.  I remember reading several dozen pages about such mundane topics as the murals on the walls in the palace, when all I really wanted to know is if the one guy with a hammer beat the hundreds of Whitecloaks in battle. 

OK, that's a bit of a falsehood on my part.  Truthfully, I remember skipping over several pages about those topics in order to get back to the battles.  I'm not the only one...Jordan's work was publicly criticized about that several times.  He didn't seem to mind; he was still selling millions of books and making bazillions of dollars.  Honestly, I didn't mind a whole heck of a lot, either.  I kept buying his books.  Flipping past pages I'm not interested in is a small price to pay...even when added to the $24.95 minus 25% I paid for the book itself...for a great story, really.  But still, I intend to avoid it. 

It's a more general problem, though.  Many authors are praised in reviews for "sparse" or "tight" writing.  Harlan Coben was quoted in The Making of a Bestseller with his "single best piece of writing advice": "I cut out all the parts you'd normally skip."  Clearly good advice, given all the praise for those who do it well, right?

Again, not as easy to implement in reality.  When I released my revised version for a first reading, it felt a little overly sparse to me but I wasn't sure where.  Now that I've gotten several responses, I'm a little more aware of where.  People don't mind side journeys along the way, so long as the side journeys answer questions that occur to them as they read.  I don't mind them, either.  That's a big dose of "duh."  But again...not a easy as it sounds.  Problem is, I know the story.  I know that Matt quirks his eyebrow, for example, because Crystal says something that his ex-wife used to say.  What I forget, especially as this work grows past 80K words and many, many pages of storytelling, is what the reader does and doesn't know. 

Interestingly, I fell on this same problem at the beginning of my teaching career.  I started off teaching CMP102, which, at a college that doesn't have a CMP101, is a pretty basic course.  Hence, I didn't assume they knew anything.  CMP103 was the same...while CMP102 was Windows basics (Windows 95, incidentally), CMP103 was DOS basics.  I assumed that nobody knew nuthin' at the beginning, which got me quite well through that first quarter. 

The second quarter was a little more difficult.  I found myself facing a group of students in CMP103 who, for the most part, were actual IT workers looking to upgrade their skills to the Microsoft Certification that, at the time, was like gold lettering on your resume.  Real gold, too, not that fake gold lamé crap.  In any event, my assumptions about what they already knew were tossed out the window.  It wasn't a difficult adjustment to make, but a big part of my success that quarter was that I did make the adjustment. 

It's kinda like the current writing situation.  Since I'm writing Part II, I have to assume that the reader already knows some things.  Not all, of course...I remember many times in Robert Jordan books when I'd forgotten details from page 10 or 20 by the time I'd gotten to page 1,342,677,832...or so.  But it happens, and the delicate balance an author has to find is between describiness..."all the parts you'd normally skip"...and leaving the reader wondering for more.  It involves, necessarily, realizing that your reader doesn't know the story anywhere near as well as you do, and making adjustments accordingly to your storytelling. 

Word count: 7,350


  1. Hmmm Atlas shrugged... had me skipping pages like crazy... How about William Faulkner for another horrible writer?

    Mark Twain could tell a story... Partly because of his practice in front of an audience... Kind of the way the Marx brothers made movies...

    How about Edgar Rice Burroughs as an example of moving a story along? He kinda over-did it, and finding some middle ground might be desirable...

    I like "I cut out the parts you'd normally skip"! I have to cut those out of my short blog posts, and then add words when the narrative isn't obvious... I can't imagine laboriously rewriting page after page of a novel!
    Then, there was the character from "Naked Lunch" who rewrote every single word a hundred times...

  2. Thank you for the comment!

    You're right on with Mark Twain's writing. Have you ever read his essay on "How to tell a story"?

    The pause is important to verbal storytelling, but I think he also figured out how to bring it into writing. Truly, I consider him a grand master, the Everyman's Bard.

    The novel rewriting part got a lot easier now that we have computers. I can't imagine doing it on a typewriter, and I also have to assume that difficulty is part of what led to the mythos surrounding piles of paper being rejected as bad writing by bored publishers. After all, who can afford the paper to write 400 pages, and then rewrite it, and then rewrite it again? But on a computer, it's much easier, not only to perform the actual rewrites, but also to use the Find and Replace features of word processors to, say, globally change the spelling of one of the twins' names (I'd spelled it one way in the first half, and the other way in the second).

    Anyway...again, thank you for commenting and giving me something further to think about. I'll have to go read Edgar Rice Burroughs now to see what you're talking about.


  3. Praise be to the computer! I have heard horror stories of how previous practitioners of my profession (translation) would translate by hand. Some of them even seemed to like it, but computers make things so much easier in terms of editing, don't they? For that matter, I really don't know what I would do without Internet!

    It still amazes me to think of the progress since I was a kid. I remember nights of lying awake listening to my mum clacking on her typewriter. Then at school I remember a neighbour getting her first gaming computer with a green and black screen attached to the telly. I also remember infant school and playing Granny's Garden on BBC Acorn computers and later doing my homework on our first Amstrad, but having to use the back slash key to log in to programs. Later, where I did my work experience they showed me how to use an electric typewriter and later still when I went to uni I couldn't afford my own computer, so opted for a word processor, but these have long since gone out of fashion and mine didn't last long either. And now the advent of the laptop has made it so much easier for us to work wherever we want. It's freaking mindboggling to me and you are a few years older than me, so I'm sure you remember even more.

    As for overdescriptiveness, aka waffling, I remember reading Dickens and finding it hard to get through his books as he did the same thing as Robert Jordan. It truly is a fine balance. I think the best stories have enough description so that you can picture the setting and the people in your mind's eye, but not so much that it goes off track and seems irrelevant. I know it takes so much work, which is why at present I am probably too lazy to write a book although I used to write a ton of stories when I was a kid and luckily I still have some of them.