Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Little Darlins

Literary agent Nathan Bransford has a blog post today about word count in novels.

"If your novel is going to be over 150,000 words and your name is not David Foster Wallace, Leo Tolstoy, or Vikram (Chandra or Seth), there had better be a darn good reason for it, " Bransford said in his blog.

My first rough draft of "Long Road" was 198,000 words. I laugh now when I look back at that. I don't think I could even bring myself to read it. Not only do I not have the patience, I wouldn't have the time. (By the way, I want to thank all of my friends who suffered through reading that first rough draft. God bless you.)

The topic of word count reminds me of something singer-songwriter Jim Casey said to me. "You've got to know when to let go of your 'Little Darlins'." Casey said he heard it from another Nashville musician, Dickey Lee. Working with Shel Silverstein, the prolific poet and lyricist with whom Casey wrote, was a walking demonstration of the phrase, he said. Apparently, Silverstein had a knack for writing verse after verse after verse and the musicians working with him just needed to discern which "Little Darlins" to cut.

"Oh,those Little Darlin's! How we love them and how hard it is to let them go," Casey said.While a couple Little Darlins can make a song, too many can make it cluttered and unappealing to the ear.

As an amateur songwriter (that's amateur in every sense of the word), I could relate to what he was saying. My understanding of what he meant correlates to the literary world, too.

At the time, it hurt to put "Long Road" on the chopping block and start hacking away the Little Darlins. It was a multi-step process that eventually ended up with a (mostly) clean finished product that was around 98,000 words.

But here's what I did:

1. I decided what part of the story I wanted to tell. In novels there can easily be stories within a story, and there should be in order to give it depth, but if the story within your story takes away from or slows down your plot, then it's a little darlin that should probably be cut.

2. Find your bad writing habits and fix them.I have still have trouble with this because I find myself using certain phrases repeatedly or unnecessary prepositional phrases and words. Take, for instance, the line from my novel: "Her clothes were still damp from being outside in the mist."Well, of course, she was outside in the mist. If mist was falling in the apartment, Nick needs to call his landlord and get his roof fixed.The line was later changed to: "Her clothes were still damp from the mist."

3. Lastly, I took the knowledge I gained from working at a newspaper and applied it to my novel. In a newspaper, you have only between 10 and 25 inches to tell a full story. If you think cutting a novel down from 198,000 words to 98,000 words, try telling the full scope of a story in 600 words.

So, take it for what it's worth, but that's how my novel turned into half the book with twice the impact. (According to my peers who have read it anyway.)

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