Thursday, January 20, 2011

When Your Writing is Too Short

We all know when our writing needs something more (or a lot more), but when we try to add length and depth to our work, writers are often at a loss. In a NaNo forum, I read a great comment on what to do when your work doesn't have enough meat. It's a long comment (which I suppose is inevitable, since she's never had a problem with writing too little).
Imaging how much color and depth a book would have if all these ideas were at the author's disposal. A writer can definitely err by writing too much, but most of us don't, and it's infinitely easier to cut material than to add it.

Here's what she said:

"After 45,000 words I am not even into the 4th week of a six month story!
"I keep describing each room the characters are in, what they had for dinner, the types of jewelry and clothing each of them wear, what they want to happen versus what actually does happen, the songs they listen to, the people they pass when they are walking, the cab driver and his point of view, what the kids are doing when their mom is talking to my character, what kinds of flowers are in that vase on the table and how the smell brings back a childhood memory of a garden his mother took him to when he was small, what the smell reminded her of, what the waiter thought when he saw them, what they thought of the waiter, how she adjusted his collar, what they talked about in bed that night, what they said on the phone several days later when he called to see how she was doing on her business trip, some little thing he bought in a store and his friends' discussion about whether or not it would make a good gift or should he just keep it for himself?
"I heard an interview with a published author who always added something new with each rewrite: each character got a hobby during one rewrite, then each character played a different musical instrument in the next, and then they each got a different pet, and the wrong people's pets liked or hated each other to create more tension. The world around your characters is full of smells, colors, walls, drapes, furniture, carvings, art, books, poetry, songs, dance, music, animals, pests, dirt, polished surfaces, mirrors, food, the areas under stoves, tables, couches, and potted plants, hardwood floors, grass, gardens, streets, cars, sidewalks, traffic signs and signals, noises from distant construction and aircraft, weather, carpets and rugs, and a bunch of different foods. People have clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, makeup, fingernails, shoes, underwear, dreams, plans, scents, hobbies, likes, dislikes, fears, recent memories, childhood memories, different textures and colors of skin, eyes, and hair, pets, roommates, landlords or tenants, kids, brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, (any of whom could drop in at any moment, or get sick, or die, forcing the characters to stop their urgent plans and pay attention to something perhaps even needing to go some place far away to visit or mourn or take care of the estate.) They interact with people in cars, buses, and cabs, buy things from people in stores, wash clothes, stand in line at supermarkets, go to movies (real, or make up a plot that could give a character an idea or clue--that worked in Roger Rabbit!) listen to music, the radio, TV, news shows, comedy shows, game shows, and dramas. People learn languages from recordings in their cars. Typos and misspellings can become names or new gadgets.
"I've got to stop. I hope that helps you or someone else. I think I'll post that list on my wall for when I get stuck!"


(For those of you who read all the way through, I'm impressed.)
Teralyn Rose Pilgrim

9 comments:

  1. I skimmed. I'm discovering that I also rarely have too little to say...I was worried about reaching my word count on my essay and ended up over 2,000 words over (which was fine, because I was able to cut some out and save it for my dissertation).
    I like this picture - it's kind of adorable.

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  2. I try to include sensory details in each chapter I write. The things you mentioned do help, but I try to paint background details with a light hand.

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  3. That lady has some great ideas for lengthening one's writing but at first glance doesn't seem very humble

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  4. I also skimmed. And I felt bad about it until I read Ardis's comment. :)

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  5. I spent several years writing for nonprofits - newsletters, grants, etc. It was all about saying things in as few words as possible. Then I started writing for audio theater, and everything had to fit a 25-30 minute format. Both experiences left me with a tendency to streamline, which can be great but can also really flatten things out. I've had to re-learn how to slow down and take the time with setting and details.

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  6. I saved this page instantly because I know that one day when I write a book, I will need this. I don't want to look back and try to remember what the post was. Thankyou for this post =)

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  7. Personally, I think this is extremely horrible advice! If you want to write well, do not take it.

    It is exactly the opposite of what you should do as a writer.

    The idea is not to fill up a book with extraneous words so that you have a certain number of pages. The idea is to tell a story, in the most compelling way possible. And that usually means in the most economic way possible.

    Hemingway changed writing because he understood that you don't have to put every word you think of down on paper. He explained his philosophy in terms of an iceberg, only 1/10th of which can be seen above the surface.

    If you really understand the world of your story, you only need to write that 1/10th to give the sense and truth of everything that's there.

    Truman Capote used a different method. He said you go outside and look at a landscape. Take the thumb and first finger of each hand, put them together to form a rectangle, hold them at arm's length and look at that landscape. If you do it right, you can find the one spot that shows you the essential part of the whole landscape. That's the story you tell.

    I see this sort of thing happen not only in books but in movies - especially indy movies. A lot of people don't understand that some things will be twice as good if they're half as long.

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  8. Harsh.

    I despise Hemmingway. I feel in all his work, he only wrote 1/10 of a book. I keep looking for the other 9/10ths.

    Some people's work is too sparse, (like mine), and we need a little push. For us, this advice is helpful.

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  9. Oh, no, I'd hate to read each and every irrelevant details added into the story just to make it longer. As a former literature student, I was taught to analyze the symbolism in details, but even non-literature students would notice excessive details and start wondering, in frustration, what it's all about. Adding too many details into a story makes it a chore to its readers. This isn't a good piece of advice at all, sorry.

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