Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide

I have a tendency to spin off first drafts like nobody’s business. I’m never at a loss for ideas, and every time I come up with something interesting that I could expand into a story, I write it down somewhere.

The hard part in turning a first draft into a finished product is knowing exactly what belongs in a story. I have a couple of specific faults as a writer that I’m constantly fighting against.

The first is that I have had the lesson “show, don’t tell” ingrained in me so much so that I forget that sometimes, you have to just say a thing outright, and then back up that telling with showing. Too many times, I’ve left important information in my mind, because as I write, my brain is filling in all the necessary information. It takes another reader to tell me that they don’t understand part of my story for me to know what I’ve left out.

The second is that I don’t always know where to place the POV. I’m a big fan of historical fiction where the POV is a character on the periphery of major events – a servant or underling in a position to see events unfold. But that’s not right for every story. It means that I have spent a lot of time re-writing work to change the POV.

Now I spend a lot of time thinking about the math that I, as a stereotypical English major, have done my level best to ignore.

ADD:

Go back and make sure that you’ve included all the information the reader needs to get a complete picture of the action. Does your character have magical powers? Make sure they’re stated somewhere obvious! You can show them in action later, but you don’t want your readers to say “How did that tree spring up out of nowhere?” because you forgot to mention that your main character is a dryad.

SUBTRACT:

I’ve now written this post about four times, because I have a tendency to put in a lot of stuff that’s not necessary, and distracts from my main point. When you add too much unnecessary detail, you distract from your story and drag down the pace. Especially when writing short fiction, it’s really important that every word pulls its weight. If you’re taking the time to point out that Aunt Harriet always wore an eight-inch hatpin with a ruby on it, she had better stab someone with it at some point, otherwise you’ve added a detail we don’t need and distracted us from more important things, like the pistol in Aunt Harriet’s apron pocket.

MULTIPLY:

I’m an opera fan. One of the features of opera is that each character tends to have a recognizable theme (if you’re unfamiliar with this convention, listen to Peter and the Wolf, a great introduction). Thematic images work the same way in literature. Perhaps one character is associated with the color blue, or roses, or sadness – go back over your manuscript and look for opportunities to add that to your piece, giving your reader one more way to fix that character in their mind.

DIVIDE:

The last thing is knowing how to break up your story. In a shorter work, it’s easy to represent changes in scenery or time with a few words, but in a much longer work, it can blur the passage of time or scenery. Sometimes it’s hard to know where one chapter should end and the next one begin, so I like to apply the Treasure Island Rule. When my children were small, I read them Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s a perfect book for smaller kids, because the chapters are short and always end on a cliffhanger, keeping the children engaged until the next night. We’d get to the end of a chapter, and I would give a dramatic “Da da DAAAAAAAAAAAA” like the music just before a commercial in a 70s detective show. Find those dramatic cliffhanger moments and make them the end of your chapters.

Now I’m back to polishing up this book, which I plan to pitch at a conference next month. Wish me luck!

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