Sunday, February 24, 2008

Size Matters

I've had this conversation three times in two weeks, so I figure it's worth a blog post.

You've just written a novel. That long hard slog is over, and now you're ready for the next stage: agents and publishers.

Size is different when you're writing. I spend my first draft in three stages:

1. Do I have enough here for a novel?

2. Will this damn thing never end?

3. Aargh, everything's happening so fast! I hope it doesn't end too soon!

Writing, your novel is an artistic creation. Written, it's a product. And to sell your product, it needs to be 70,000 to 120,000 words. Oh, and those are outer limits. The closer you get to 85-100,000 words, the better your chances.

Why? Imagine you're a reader, shopping in a bookstore: A title by an unknown author catches your eye. You pick it up off the shelf.

If the book is 120 pages, with blank sheets between chapters and REALLY BIG PRINT, you're not going to pay full price for it.

If the book by the newbie is 790 pages of tiny dense type, with a sticker price twice the titles around it, you'll probably pass.

Fact is, most readers will only take a punt on a new author if the book is a respectable 250-350 pages, and the price is in line with other titles on the shelf. There are other reasons relating to printing costs and such, but it all boils down to publishers wanting to entice our future fans and make a few dollars for themselves and you in the process.

Length varies a bit by genre, too. Fantasy and historical fiction are generally more sympathetic to the high end of the spectrum, crime and thrillers to the low end. And yeah, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions, but you're more likely to be published if you don't run around forcing people to make an exception for you.

So your work doesn't fit? Have no fear, Full Throttle help is here!

Too short? Your grand novel ends at just over 40,000 words? You can't chop it into a short story and the market for novellas is dry, dry dry?

Don't Pad: The first impulse is usually to pad your story out. You know, introduce some worthy thoughts and musings from your viewpoint character, maybe a little philosophy, or a lecture on the inner workings of the four-barrel carburator from the friendly mechanic.

Do. Not. Do. This. Padding always smells like padding, and it don't smell good. No no no nononono. No.


Reread your work. Have you gone from scene to sequel, scene to sequel? Have you given each their proper due? You may find that by the time you give these elements their proper due, you're up to a reasonable length. You may also find yourself plugging some plot holes.

Consider a subplot. Especially one that relates to the main plot. Say your marshall has to make the decision to face the gang of outlaws coming on the noon train. Why not introduce a deputy who should probably stand with him but makes a different decision, turning coward instead? Why not look at the outlaw's old girlfriend and the decision *she* makes?

You can do it!

More likely, your brand new magnum opus is a gentle giant. My first, 'training', novel (a pretty straightforward thriller) wandered out of its first draft at 160,000 words! My first cruel edit reduced this to 140,000, but eventual diet and exercise got that tale down to a lean 92,000.

How do you do it?


That. Most unnecessary bloody word in English. Do a global delete of every 'that' in your document and then add the three or four that absolutely need to be there back in.

Said. ANYWHERE the reader has a good idea who's talking, wipe out dialogue attribution. The savings can be mighty.

Then. I beg your pardon. That is *not* the most unnecessary word in English. Then is.

Up and Down. Again, useless. 'He looked at her' is just as good as 'He looked down at her.'

For more takeaways, read this post on unnecessary language, and this advice from lean style-master Elmore Leonard.

Long description. Long explanation. Any of those long bits readers tend to skim. If you write sf/f, consider deleting those 'world-explanations'. Just drop your reader in the world and let them pick it up as the tale rolls. Jim Butcher, Charles DeLint, CJ Cherryh and Neil Gaiman all rock at this.

Done all that and you're still too long? Put on your aprons and goggles, dear writer. It starts to get bloody...

Amputate. Take a good look at your subplots. Say goodbye to one. Slice it out. No one but you will know...

Split. Maybe you have two stories. Or three. Or six. Just make sure the first one stands alone.

When he first wrote LA Confidential, James Ellroy had a few modest-selling titles to his credit. He turned in a manuscript that was insanely long. So long that his publisher wouldn't touch it. Everyone agreed it was a good story, but they'd have gone broken printing it.

Arguments ensued. At one point, Ellroy says to his agent, "What's he want me to do, take out all the 'a's, 'the's, and 'but's? That'd shorten it up."

Lightbulb: on. Ellroy's style: born. Final book: 512 pages.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Cardboard Box Blues II

So we're shifted out of our former Secret Headquarters: a sunny and lovely, though all too small, flat.
Our former surroundings were horse pastures and orchards, and it was delightful.

Yesterday saw the last of the boxes move into our new Secret Headquarters.
The new house has its own, peculiar, charms and delights. Not unlike that house in Anne Rice's The Witching Hour.

I'm still armpits deep in boxes and trying to figure out where we packed the towels, etc. but I'm still writing, still revising, and I'll blog properly again tomorrow. Promise.

Meantime, I now live in a place where there are no right angles, the floors slope like the deck of a ship, icy drafts curl through the air even in the middle of summer, and dark shapes flutter behind the surfaces of mirrors. And this house has a lot of mirrors...

Will this have an effect on my work? We shall see. Certainly all those stairs will be good for the exercise!
Meantime, I really should go see about that noise out the window. A bit like the flap of leathery wings...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Cardboard Box Blues

The holiday was most... rejuvenating.

Now we shift to our new Secret Headquarters. There seem to be rather more boxes than I remember.

All should be back in place by Monday. I hope.

Monday, February 11, 2008


(glove slap, baby glove slap...)

The Tiny Dynamo and I are relocating our Secret Headquarters this week. This involves a lot of stumbling around, trying to figure out which box I put my pants in.

In a situation like this, there's only one thing to be done: leave town for a couple days. Yup, we'll be enjoying warm and sunny Akaroa, swimming with dolphins and eating at C'est La Vie. Oh yeah...

Perhaps when I come back, I'll be able to find my pants...

While I leave the internet unattended, I throw down a gauntlet:

Write me a story.

A short story. How short? Really short. Really, really, *really* short: six words.

We've all heard Hemingway's six word story. "For sale: baby shoes, never used."

Or, there're some mighty fine ones up over at Wired. I've even gone ahead and whipped up a couple of my own...

"Love me?"

"Too bad."


Her lips: soft.
Her head: severed.

I know what you're thinking, and I agree: you can write better than that. So get going, I wanna see your shorts!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Danger State

CS Harris had quite the terrifying near-miss today. Odd creatures that we are, throughout the danger she's got her writer's hat on, posing this question:

So how do writers of books filled with shootings, explosions, chases, etc, avoid falling into cardiopulmonary hyperbole while still giving readers a realistic description of the effect of these incidents on their characters?

When the human animal is placed in perceived danger (I don't know about you, but my heart started racing when I saw that graphic up top!), two squidgy sacs on top of the kidneys dump adrenaline and noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine) into the bloodstream. For a good description of the physical effects: read this article. For a good description of the mental effects, you might try this one. Since this is neither an anatomy lesson nor a psychological one, I'm going to stick with write-about-able descriptions.

In my experience, there are three main sorts of perceived danger, each with different reactions:

Sudden danger: Anything from a car crash or mugging to someone jumping out of a closet and going 'BOO'. When you are in sudden danger, the adrenaline dump is sudden and complete. Time slows. Perception brightens and intensifies, but memory fragments and distorts. Pain ceases to exist. Our bodies may react without our brains being engaged. Or we may find ourselves unable to react at all. More on that later.

Do NOT write about the pounding heart in these moments. Yes, that noble pump is indeed working hard in these moments. Your blood pressure is likely to be through the roof. Thing is, you're not likely to be aware of it. Those of our ancestors who reacted to the bear attack by jumping into trees or yelling and swinging sticks survived to reproduce. Those who stood there going, 'wow, heart hammering in Ogg's chest' did not.

So what's a writer to do?

-Write instead about the time slow (a neurochemical effect).
-About the cold skin and numb lips (as blood flees the skin for the skeletal muscles).
-About the sudden bright colors (pupil dilation and neurochemistry both), or the way color will tend to blue at the edges of vision.

-I have often had black spots crowd at my periphery and the sensation of blood slowly thumping in my ears. Slowly? Yeah: my pulse might have been over 180, but with your time-sense shaved down to zillionths of a second, everything's going slowly!

Aftermath: Your body idles down. That sudden racing heart gradually returns to normal. Your brain reacquires the ability to perceive past and future (fear and rage are all about the present!) and struggles to make sense of what just happened. You begin paying your oxygen debt - with interest. And the shakes, oh yes, the shakes...

Persistent Danger: Think back to every child's favorite game of predator and prey, tag. Whether you're it or not it, you're in a heightened adrenalized state for an extended period. Your body adjusts, and it also feels the effects of the effort.

Chasing or being chased, be it in a car, on a sports field or through a misty wood in the middle of the night) our bodies are in a sustained and heightened adrenaline state. If Sudden Danger is the equivalent of nitrous oxide on our metabolic engines, Persistent Danger is like running at the top end of the tach in every gear. The effects are still there, but not as pronounced.

THIS is the place for that pounding heart, and that struggle for breath. Sudden Danger, you don't know what the effort cost until it's over. Persistent Danger, your body's having to pay as it goes, muscles starving for oxygen and drowning in their own acids. How much you can pay (how long you can stay in this state) depends on what kind of shape you're in. A professional rugby or soccer player can run up and down the field for two hours straight. An overweight and sedentary smoker might keel over running down the block.

Aftermath: Sore and burning muscles (those acids) and a milder case of the shakes are pretty normal. How much or how little depend on how prepared you are for these sorts of events.

Perceived Danger: Remember hide and seek? Hunkered down in your hiding place, knowing the predator was coming, knowing that at any moment you might have to burst into action?

Your metabolic engine was racing hard, but you were stuck in neutral. All that adrenalin was pinging around your system, but there was nowhere for it to go. Couldn't fight, couldn't flee. But you had to be ready for both.

Sadly, too many of us live in this state. I mean, it's one thing if you live in a war zone where snipers and land mines are a constant danger, but for most of us the dangers we work ourselves into a froth over are illusory: being late, not ticking off items on a 'to-do' list, anything that happens in an office.

Aftermath: In a way, this is the most dangerous possible adrenalin state. Your body is marvellously adaptable, and if you convince it that you are in constant danger, it will adapt, and you will pay. High blood pressure, ulcers and heart disease on the physical side and post-traumatic stress on the mental.

One more important thing about writing the adrenaline:

Personalities: One important word was perceived danger. Life prepares us for different kinds and levels of stress. The severity of our adrenalin boost is moderated by how badly we think we need it.

Also, some people simply react differently. Some instinctively fight, some instinctively flee. And some instinctively freeze and hide. I think evolution gives gives us this range, so that whichever is appropriate keeps the race going.

Training and repeated exposure can influence these reactions, turn what might be a big shock to one person into pretty normal for another. But when a new shock is faced, that primal instinct may kick in. A fireman running into a burning building will be in a heightened state, but (let us all hope) he or she won't be freaking out. On the other hand, that same fireman finds a homeless person frozen to death in their doorway, the reaction might be quite a bit different.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Strong Spine

I'm hard at work on the third pass for Crossroad Blues. The second pass went well: the spine of the story showed through, nice and strong.

What's the story's spine, you ask? In the Full Throttle toolbox, the spine of the story is that sentence or two that forms the essence of the story, its core.

The spine of Double Indemnity is two shiftless lovers plotting to get away with the murder of her husband. The spine of American Gods is Shadow's deepening relationship with his father in the face of the coming war. The spine of Crossroad Blues is a decent man thrown into a nest of human vipers.

This first draft was hard. There was a lot of flab and dead tissue before I got both hands wrapped around that spine. And as often happens, by the time I wrote 'the end' I knew I needed to change a few things at the beginning. And a few more. next thing I knew, I was deep in the second pass.

And of course, by the time the second pass was done, I could see that I had to get back in for a third.

My second draft was relatively minor. There were hours spent looking up facts I glossed over in the heat of the first draft: which private jet does the rich guy use? What's its range/how many refueling stops/what kind of time does he need? What breed of horse works best in this terrain? What would this expert actually know, and how would he say it? The usual.

Also, I'm shocking for changing the names of minor characters mid-book. Lots of search 'n replacing there.

Third run at the material, now I'm grappling with structure. I need to add some new material to set up more of the end of the story. Certain scenes, I need to change the viewpoint characters. Which means changing the voice of the narration, sure, but also, the information one character takes from a scene will be different from another. (Example: a sixteen year old girl and a middle-aged auto mechanic will see wildly different things when they look at a car.)

As I move through this stage, I keep one question at the front of my mind: Is this true to the spine? Because you can monkey with a lot of things in a story, but you touch that spine, you may very well kill your story.

Take Double Indemnity. Does Walter need to be in inurance? It helps, but you could write the story differently. Does Barton need to be so tenacious, or even there at all? Not really. You could write the story with a different set of complications and pressures. Now imagine it without the adultery, or the husband, or the money. Any one of those things come out, what's left?

Or how about American Gods? Shadow could meet different gods. He could go different places in his quest. I think the decisions Neil Gaiman made are brilliant (especially Laura and the abandoned hotel at the center of the US); they contribute to and enrich that core story. But the truth is, some things could be done differently and still have a similar story. Not so with Shadow's father, or the coming war.

So I work, trying to figure out what contributes, what can come out, what needs to change and what doesn't. In all these things, I try to be faithful to that spine. I want to make it better, faster, stronger.
Because I really like this story, and I want to do it justice.