Thursday, January 17, 2013

Words That Count

I prefer to sit down at my keyboard and write without much regard to how many words it takes. I also prefer to be rich, and live in the south of France. In the old days, writers were paid by the word and using more words instead of fewer words had a positive impact on the writer's paycheck. Things don't work that way any more. Recently I entered a writing contest and it had a word limit of 8k words.

Trouble is that the idea for the story fits in a novel. A nice, long novel with corporate intrigue, geopolitical machinations, a space colony, and a boy & girl becoming lovers. Sure, I can get that story in if I've got 100k words, or more likely 300k words. The contest between the UN and the Spacers or the one between corporations, will take 8k words just to set up.

So, I had to trim things back. The first thing I did was to drop the scene in West Virginia. All it did was establish the protagonist's short temper. Also cut, the unannounced change in destination from the Moon to an asteroid. That's what you do when you have to cut back on word-count. Ask each scene what it does to bring to the overall story arc.

After I pared everything down to the core of my story I started writing in my normal fashion until I got to about the 6k mark. Going through the already-written prose to get more words would be a very bad idea. Instead, I had to change my approach, more telling, less showing. Less dialog. The story came together beneath the limit with about 150 words to spare.

I didn't like doing that, but it's a tradeoff. Any constrained optimization solution you have to offer gambits--losing something desirable to avoid something more undesirable. You never have to think to cut a bad thing to add a good thing. You always have to agonize over cutting a good thing to add what you hope to be a better thing.

This is why it's good to refine your ability to express the jist of an idea. In any project you're working on, you may be asked to describe it. Maybe you'll have two weeks to give a seminar. More likely a few minutes to give an elevator pitch. Sure, the summary isn't as good as the real thing, but you can make the summary as good as possible.

When you hit the word limit on a piece, you have to start sacrificing bits of the story. If you can't remove a piece without the story collapsing, you have to replace it with a summary. This is an ugly solution. If you do it badly, you'll have an Irving the Explainer character. Not good. The art is in figuring out what to sacrifice and how to sacrifice it. (Like in a screen adaptation.)

The genius is in finding a sacrifice that improves the piece. When Hemingway wrote icebergs he managed to evoke thousands of words of backstory through a few facts sewn into the narrative like pearls sewn into a silk gown.

I was kidding with a friend about a story in its early planning stages. My protagonist seemed a bit bland and I flippantly remarked, "Suppose she shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." That got me thinking about backstory events that shaped this character's life and her reaction to a fellow who's similar to and yet different from the man she murdered. These considerations added about a dozen sentences total to the narrative. Yet they serve as an emotional axis about which the character turns.

I didn't have the word-count available to show Alaska, the rape, the murder, and stint in prison. I could only drop hints, because I wanted to use those words to show her solving problems in a space colony.

Did it work? Idunno. Check back with me later. The main thing is for you to find what works for you.

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