Friday, May 27, 2016

Cheerleaders for Writers

Being a writer can sometimes mean crossing hurdles that no one understands. Don’t worry. As I say that, I tried to find my Linkin Park CD before remembering that I don’t actually have any form of CD player. Even my laptop is more mature than me. But writers don’t get girls in short skirts and men in short-shorts cheering them on for every point they make. We’re lucky if we realize we’ve even scored. It’s an isolated field and even when you do have friends and family way too close for comfort, you can feel alone.

It’s not as though people are unsupportive, it’s just hard to explain an abstract of “No, I’m not finished with my book, but I’m done with cutting it!”

Done-ish anyway. As of this week I finally got my massive manuscript down to a more traditional size. Took me almost two years. The first 40,000 words were easy, the last 30,000, not so much, especially considering the thousands I’ve added with new scenes and clarifications.

When I finally got to the epilogue at 109,000 words, I felt a huge surge of excitement, a huge wave of relief. I had been slicing out little words, changing phrasing, and cutting all the excess lines since March 2014. I’d been editing since March 2013.

Yet, as emotions flooded over me, when I looked up from my computer to find someone to tell, I realized it would take a lot of explaining before they’d be excited.

There are only a few people you can brag to without looking like a total asshat.

Then there are the friends and family who have never attempted to edit and, while logically get it’s hard, see the celebration as a bit premature.

Moreover, even the ones who understand the difficulty won’t agree with your choice. Granted, word count is a fairly controversial issue. It’s the one numerical method of measuring effort and yet not necessarily quality. So, it’s easy to judge, but doesn’t necessarily mean the judgment is accurate. It is also easy to brag about, but doesn’t mean your workload was worthwhile.

But without a bigotry on which size is better, size is something that should be always be questioned around the draft two. Even if your book falls into the average size of a novel (80,000-100,000 words), it might be too long or too short to successfully tell the story it wants to be. Most first drafts need tweaking on pacing, tension, and atmosphere which both are highly influenced by the time taken and the number of words used to explain an idea.

Admittedly, the main reasons that having a book between 70,000-100,000 words (60,000 to 120,000 for certain genres) have more to do with expectation and cost than storytelling, but those things matter, even if you don’t consider them a priority. And arbitrary guidelines can be extremely useful for pushing yourself. When I first decided to try and cut the 180,000-word giant, I told myself that I would stop when I felt like the integrity of the book was in question. I figured that if I couldn’t get it down to a reasonable size, I could submit it anyway, and if I got rejected, I could put it aside and try again if I found success with other manuscripts.

It did change things. I found that the majority of sentences weren’t better or worse, just different. Some were much improved, others not so much. I lost some voice, but gained some tension. The characters grew more bossy, less empathetic. The protagonists fought more, the good times removed. Some of my stumbling voice disappeared, and I found more precise phrasing. Also, by examining each and every sentence at the word level, I understood my choices a great deal more, the pros and cons of deleting "excess."

Over time, I’d mentioned to others what I’m doing. Some authors recommend against this, for obvious reasons, but when you write a lot, especially when discussing it online as I do, especially in crowded houses, it’s going to come up. People will naturally ask what you’re doing, how it’s going—and even though some writers consider these lines of questions insulting, usually I perceive it as making small talk, or even being genuinely curious.

But the responses were always the same:

“Why do you need to cut it down?”

“Just cut a chapter or two.”

“Hemingway would be proud.”

And now, as I sent out a message reading, “Done!” I already knew what my friends would say:

“You’re sending it out?” they ask.

“Well, no, there’s at least two actual drafts left,” I say.

“Of course,” they scoff.

Kind of deflating.

Writing, especially in the beginning, is filled with little joys, little accomplishments that you rarely are able to share with anyone. There’s a reason why those who write for solely themselves still want readers, still want someone to care about these feats and characters just as much as you do.

I’ve had some major breakthroughs with this manuscript this last month, and I’m hoping its all downhill from here.

But probably not.

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