Saturday, November 26, 2011

What is the Right Length?

At a panel not too long ago I was asked how I decided how long to make a story.  My answer at that time, somewhat facetiously, was that a story was as long as it has to be and not a word more.

In the past year, in addition to working on some novels, I deliberately set a limit of no more than 7,500 words as the upper limit for any short story that I wrote, with a strong preference for keeping them around 5,000 words.  Of the eight competed, I managed to write just three within those limits.  Four went over the 7,500 word limit and, sadly, the final one is now threatening to become more than 20,000 words and become practically unsaleable.

So why couldn't I stick to my goal and make them all short?  At what point did my stories become longer than planned and why?  I honestly don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that there was no point at which I said "enough!"  I do not pad the stories, adding unnecessary details and diversions that wander far from the plot or delve too deeply into descriptions, internal ramblings, or the price of tea in China.  No, I set out with my plots sketched out, knew where the story line was going to end, and how I wanted to develop the idea(s) but ...

Here's a hypothetical:  To get from dramatic point A to dramatic point C something had to happen - perhaps a new character needed to be introduced, a bit of backstory, a little foreshadowing, or a piece of exposition.  The introduction of this material isn't really a choice but called for by the demands of the story as it strives for completion.  Without that something being introduced, the story would fall apart or fail the reader in some way.  You can't fight it, so you do what is needed and welcome the something into the flow and that gives rise to another scene or two, some more interactions, and, before you know it, the story has taken itself over the limit.  Worse, when the final editing is completed, and when all the fluff and nonsense has been removed you discover that the story has resolved into the size it was meant to be.

So who decides on the length of the story being told?  Did the plot force it to be a certain length?  Were the characters' backgrounds and personalities the driving force? Was it the descriptive density of the setting?  Perhaps it was the sheer number of interactions that had to take place?  So many factors, so many choices and who is the writer to decide?

A story becomes as long as it needs to be.

Friday, November 18, 2011

On Drafting

The first draft is a story that you tell yourself - a raw expression of the thoughts that race through your head as hands translate imagination to scenes, characters, settings, drama, and plot.  You race to get them all down as they come; constantly worrying that the magic will fade before you are done. You race through, throwing thoughts at the text without ordering or forcing them into any semblance of order.  Get the draft DONE is the imperative.

But soon the magic does dissipate, only to haunt your dreams, letting you wake with a flood of new ideas, new departures, new concepts.  You burn to get these down before they vanish from memory, before the day's reality captures your mind with prosaic concerns.  Did you have time to dash off a quick note, a sketch, or  a few reminder words to help you when you have an opportunity to return to the draft?     How do you keep this going? Do you have the energy to do this time and again?  The pressure of the idea become intense, forcing you to return to the draft until, in a final burst of energy, your draft is done. All of your ideas have bled into the draft.

Then you read it and discover that it is a mess:  The character definitions are a muddle and their motivations unknown, suspect, or nonexistent.  Viewpoints shift from one character to another.  Scene description range from excessive to spare, inappropriate in some places and oddly misplaced in others, lending nothing to the dramatic point.  You belatedly discover that the blue vase on the first page becomes red on the third, a box on the seventh, and disappears entirely for the next twenty, only to reappear as a cat. Madness!

And it is at this point that the work of writing really begins. If  you ever hope to sell it, you'll have to tame this unwieldy mess. First you have to tighten the characters and give them a consistent world view. Then you have to decide how to handle the scenery, keying it to the plot's needs instead of simply supplying descriptive narrative.  You have to find the place where the story really starts and shift whatever scenes came earlier in your time line into flashbacks or reverie. Is there a place where you could put some foreboding - something  you hadn't consciously thought of while scribbling those first approximations of a story?  Did I mention assembling the various ideas into cogent scenes, or placing them into an order that would make sense to a reader who is absent of your creative insight?  In other words; crafting your rough draft into readable form.

This reworking of the draft isn't a quick and dirty pass-through.  No, you have to work the draft again and again until all the questions above have been addressed.  You have to make the plot appealing to both the sophisticate and the novice.  Then, only then, can you start worrying about grammar and spelling before casting it out into the cold, cruel world.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Backing Up

Writing on the computer is a joy, but the ease with which we create and save our work makes us forget what a thin thread supports our archives. The accidental brush of a hand can erase a year's effort, a power outage could easily destroy a day's work, and a hard drive failure always seems to happen at the worst of times.

All of the foregoing points out the necessity of making back-up copies of your works, including those in process. Backing up has been my mantra since my first computer, with over thirty drafts and all my previously published works, was stolen many years ago.  A second theft of my computer was less catastrophic because I had just cut a CD of my writing files, but still lost the drafts and outlines, notes and clippings of works in progress, along with a host of non-writing related material.  That's when I bought an external hard drive on which to store everything and began storing my CD's separately.  This was an awkward process for a non-OCD writer, like me, who had to schedule backup sessions so I would not forget.

As I said in the title, backing up is hard to do, but it's something every writer should do.  When Apple introduced Time Machine to automatically save my files I nearly cried with joy and bought an external  2TB drive to support it.  Recently I put everything on the Cloud AND still back up every few hours on my Mac's Time Machine, For really, really important files I also back them up on a 500MB external drive.  Every six months I cut a DVR to keep in my car, and send a copy of all my files to my archivist at Northwestern University at the end of every year, along with my "papers" (scrawled notes, marked up printouts, letters, etc.) All this might seem excessive, but the peace of mind this grants me is well worth it.  Did I mention that I am slightly OCD?

Backing up has had some additional benefits besides protection against inadvertent loss.  Earlier this week I realized that two of my old stories had mysteriously disappeared from my current machine.  Had I deleted or filed them elsewhere than my writing files? I began searching, first through the older files on my primary external hard drive, which contained copies from 2009 to the present with no luck.  I then looked through the older back up drive that contained copies from 1998 to 2008, again with not success.  Finally I went to my stack of original CDs, the ones I made when I first began saving files, some of which went back to 1995  (Yeah, I'm a packrat!) and found them.  They are now restored to my current files.

I've had two complete machine failures since I started backing up and managed to restore everything because of my willingness to put in the effort to back up regularly and thoroughly. I would advise you to do likewise.

Friday, November 4, 2011


As part of my health program I've begun walking three miles or so each day.  I walk outside, along the roads when the weather is good and around the local mall when it is not.  The road I follow is fairly busy as it winds its way toward the Mall, shopping centers, and Annapolis.  Besides the health benefits the walk gives me time to think about whatever story I happen to be working on and, on occasion, gives me something new to consider.

Usually I see something of interest on my outside walks. It might be a flock of birds rising noisily from their nightly roost, a raccoon returning from a night on the town, a few indecisive squirrels dodging cars (and a few somewhat flatter), and the detritus and cast-offs from passing litterbugs that have not yet been swept up by the litter patrols.

Based on the cans lying alongside the road, light beers seem to be the favorite, with canned (non) iced tea a close second, and soda pop a distant third.  I have also seen car parts, plastic bags, scatterings of glass and plastic shards from an accident, an occasional tool, chunks of lumber, and, most mysterious of all - right shoes - at least three in the past month.

How can someone lose a single shoe, I ask, and why only the right one?  Are there yahoos riding about at night with their right leg out the window who do not notice their shoe's departure? Could they be the same ones who negligently toss their cans and bottles aside? Alternately, could some runners be hobbling along, too exhausted to notice that their right feet have become unshod?  There must be an answer, but what could it be?

As if the presence of  abandoned shoes were not confounding enough, this morning I discovered one (right, of course) that was still nicely laced and tied with a bow.  Tied! The sight stopped me in my tracks.  So instead of working on the story idea du jour I found myself framing scenarios about those shoes, about the  castoffs of a mobile civilization, and the strange circumstance that would bring a tied shoe to a spot of woods in the middle of the night. Is there a story there?

My mind churned with the possibilities.  How would I frame the explanation?  Was it tossed out the window in anger by a lover, thrown away in revenge for some slight, or was it the remaining effect of someone whisked away by aliens? I hesitated, almost tempted to slide down the bank to see if a foot was inside, with a mangled and dismembered body further up the ravine, but I did not.

I'm not a horror writer.