Condensation

On March 18, 2016, Kitty wrote, I’m writing a short story for a contest, but I’m 238 words over the 1,000 word limit, and I absolutely cannot cut any more. I’ve used most of the tricks in the book, changing everything to contractions, cutting out fluff, and even cutting out a whole scene. The story is simple enough; spurred by a radio announcement of winning a mystery prize, 16 year old Nina takes her 5 year old sister Francesca (who’s implied to be sick with an unspecified disease) to the radio station to claim the prize. The two girls have a discussion about what they would want to win, culminating with Francesca saying that she wants a pair of wings so that she can be lighter and not be a burden on her family (which a classmate has accused her of being, but Francesca, taking the word literally, as a heavy object, thinks that she just needs to be lighter, hence the need for wings) and Nina’s response. I’ve kept the description down to a minimum, but I feel like if I cut anymore description I’ll lose some of the emotional poignancy. Gahh…cutting 800 words was easy, but now that I’m down to the last 200s I’m having a really hard time. Any advice?

Lots of you had thoughts.

Christie V Powell: Do you have a beta-reader who can help? It seems like at this point you might need a fresh set of eyes.

Emma: When I was writing for my short story contest, I started out with a great idea, and went with it. It was going great, and I was loving where it was heading… until I saw the word count at the bottom of the screen. The word count was 891, and I wasn’t even close to finishing (the word limit was 1,000, by the way). It made me really mad at first, because I really wanted to use the story, but I loved the story I had created too much to change it. I knew that if I took away too much, it wouldn’t be nearly as good as I wanted it to be. So I started a new story. Now, I had about five days to a week until the deadline to send it in, which was cutting it pretty close, so I suggest that if you have less than five days to work with, don’t start over on a new story. Anyway, I wrote my new short story, which I came to love just as much as the 1st one. By the time I got to the end, I was 24 words over the limit. After editing, I finished with 988 words.

So I said all that to say that if you have time, it’s ok to start on a new short story. It may surprise you that you may even like the new story you come up with just as much. Also, since, from what it sounds like, you are very happy with your story and don’t want to strip it of all the good stuff, you may want to leave it the way it is so you can develop the story more without worrying about the word count. If starting on a completely new short story kind of scares you, don’t let it. That’s what I did, and guess what? I won 1st in the contest I entered it in. Hope all this helps, and I hope the contest goes well, whatever you decide to do!

Song4myKing: I have a similar problem with a novel. I’ve read that YA novels are generally 50,000 to 90,000 words and I realized that at 106,000 words, I needed to trim mine down. So I did, taking into consideration comments from my “beta readers” and cutting not-so-needed scenes, paragraphs, and words. I got it down to 98,000 words, but I don’t think I can cut much more and keep the same story. That might not be so bad, except that there’s a publisher that I’d really like to send it to. The publisher is one of the few with the right audience who accepts unsolicited manuscripts. But I see on their submissions page, that they expect YA fiction to be 30,000 to 60,000. Now I’m trying to decide if I should send it anyway, or skip it, or try splitting my novel into two (which would be difficult, after all this time trying to make it one cohesive whole!).

Melissa Mead: If the guidelines say 30,000-60,000, I wouldn’t send them a 98,000 word novel. Ignoring guidelines is one of the quickest ways to get cut, especially for new writers. And splitting the novel into 2 books would mean trying to sell 2 books, not just one. This may not be the right story for this market (or vice versa).

And me: This publisher accepts unsolicited manuscripts? If yes, I agree with Melissa. But if you’re going to send a query and sample chapter, then I’d say, go ahead. If there’s interest, you can say then that the manuscript exceeds length expectations and ask if they’d still like to see it. In that circumstance the answer may be yes.

Now for my longer answer. I like the beta reader suggestion. We can ask a reader to note places that can be condensed, spots where her attention wandered–and to say why if she can.

Recently, I read the first chapter of my WIP to the audience at a book signing. I told them beforehand that I would know if and when they got bored. Alas, they did get bored, and I did know. The quality of the silence changed. I could also tell when they snapped back to attention. I trimmed the chapter accordingly.

You can try this, too. Assemble a few friends or family and read to them, not a whole novel, obviously, but a chunk that you’re wondering about. Or, a little over 1,000 words of a short story isn’t too much. A couple of warnings, though. You have to read loud enough for your audience to hear you effortlessly. And don’t read with a lot of expression. If you’re a talented reader, you may get them past the dull spots by the drama in your performance, and, for this purpose, you don’t want that.

This topic is dear to my heart. When I revise, even while writing a first draft, the thing I do most is cut. I just compared word counts between my latest draft of The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre and my first draft. The shrinkage was from 105,000 words to 71,000, more than twenty-five percent. I don’t think I’ve ever produced a final draft of a novel without cutting more than a hundred pages. (Of course, it would be nice if I didn’t have to, if I knew what I needed and didn’t need right off the bat. Sigh,)

Just saying, there are famous authors, who have enormous careers, whose work I can’t read because I’m mentally crossing out words and phrases as I go until I close the book five pages in. I like lean prose. And whether or not we’re writing for a contest or a publisher’s guidelines or just for our own project, we want our story to zip along. We should go through this trimming process for everything (except, perhaps, we can skip turning whatever we can into a contraction).

How do we get there?

On a micro level, we should question our adjectives and adverbs to see if we need them. The muscle parts of speech in English are nouns and verbs. For example, examine or scrutinize is better than look closely. I’d especially check and probably excise any uses of very. A pet peeve of mine is the word suddenly (or the phrase all of a sudden), which usually isn’t needed.

We can look at our passive constructions, as in, There were a thousand lemmings, galloping toward the cliff. Better and shorter would be A thousand lemmings galloped toward the cliff. Sometimes we need a passive sentence, but often we can rephrase. We can find these constructions by searching for the word there.

We can trim prepositions. Take my sentence above: The muscle parts of speech in English are nouns and verbs. Two prepositions, of and in. I can revise to get shorter and punchier, combining this sentence with the previous one like this: On a micro level, we should question our adjectives and adverbs to see if we need them, because nouns and verbs pack the most power. No prepositions in the last clause. To see how prepositions clog up prose, take a look at the writing that emanates from bureaucracies, like instructional manuals, mission statements, textbooks. You’ll see that much of it is stuffed with prepositions. Yawn.

Another pet peeve is could/can (depending on tense). Here’s an example: Bethany could see her pet lemming Horace join the throng heading for the cliff. If she could see Horace then she saw him. One fewer word. I notice this could/can thing often and sometimes fall into it myself.

On a macro level, we can question every secondary character. What role is this guy playing in our plot? Can another character take his mission on in addition to the other things she has to do?

Have we repeated an action? For example, in Lost Kingdom, Perry has to get away from a fix. She has an eventual destination in mind, but I added an intermediate way station, which she also has to reach, and this bogged everything down. I had my reasons, but I can’t remember them, because as soon as I made her go straight where she needed to wind up, the reasons evaporated.

We can evaluate every scene, which Kitty and Song4myKing say they’ve done, but it’s still worth mentioning. As we did with characters, can we merge two scenes if we need elements of each one?

Have we included background that we can sneak into the story as it unfolds? Do we need all of it anyway?

Same with world-building. Do we have info dumps when all action stops? Are they essential, or can the knowledge be imparted more economically and more organically? Are we failing to give our readers credit for being able to figure some things out?

Can we summarize a part where not much happens? Suppose, for example, a few years have to pass. Maybe our MC has to get a little older. Can we move from showing to telling to get us through this period, name a few highlights, and jump to the new time?

Having said all this, I agree with Emma that a particular story may need more room to be told, and that need, for the sake of literary excellence, is paramount. We serve our stories. Our next idea may be more compact and may be more suited to a shorter word count.

I also agree with Melissa Mead that we need to meet a publisher’s guidelines, but we can keep in mind that the guidelines may be stupid, even while we fulfill them. When I was still unpublished, a mentor at a conference warned me that my manuscript–Ella–had better be under 200 pages. It wasn’t, but it was close. A year or so later, the very much longer first Harry Potter book wowed the kid lit world and changed the standards for middle-grade fiction.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Below is the beginning of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” There is plenty to cut, so go at it . Put these paragraphs on a diet. I suggest trying it two ways. Try anorexic. Then approach it as an abridger might, keeping the flavor of the original, but slimmer.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot — say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance — literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

∙ I was recently asked to write a version of “The Ugly Duckling” for a textbook publisher, which will be used with first graders at the beginning of the school year, so it will be one of their first reading experiences. My version had to be under 200 words. There were other requirements as well. The children would be learning the short i sound, so I needed as many words as possible with that sound. Most of the sentences had to be short enough to fit on a single line. Words needed to be easy. I was to include time references. The children couldn’t handle quotation marks, so no dialogue per se, although there will be sort of dialogue in cartoon word balloons when the story is illustrated. And I added another constraint. The original “Ugly Duckling” is morally challenged, in my opinion. The poor duckling isn’t acceptable until he turns out beautiful. And there’s a subtler message, too: stick with your own kind, ducks with ducks, swans with swans. So I wanted to fix all that.

I’m pleased that I managed it, including the word count, and I’ve been getting edits that will make the selection even easier. I’ve never written for this age to read to themselves, so it was an interesting challenge, which I’m passing along to you. Try another Hans Christian Anderson story, “The Princess and the Pea.” Tell it in under 200 words or as close as you can. You can include any of the other requirements I had, too, if you like.

∙ Revisit a page of a finished story or a WIP of yours and trim it using the strategies above.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thank you, Gail, Christie, Emma, and anyone else who replied! I did use the critique group trick and cut it down to a reasonable size. Unfortunately, I didn’t win, but that now means that I can restore it to its original length and try submitting to magazines. And Emma, starting on a new story was actually what I did last year for the contest; and the original story eventually turned into my 60,000-word novel. Yay!

  2. Kitty, that’s great that you were able to submit the story, and that you’ve made plans for future submissions -and congrats on your novel. 🙂

  3. I used prowritingaid.com, which highlighted some of these problems and helped make the writing more concise (there are other sites that do this, but this one’s free). ‘Could’ was usually my most-cut word.

    Here’s a question: I’m thinking about writing a prequel, but a lot of the information already came up in backstory. Do you have any advice for putting a new spin on a story where the basic plot is already known?
    In this case, my book begins several months after an evil group took over the kingdoms. I’ve included enough backstory that most of the original takeover is understood but I thought it might be fun to write out the prequel if I can find a way to make it unique enough.

  4. Okay. I have a slight problem. I am writing a short story/novella (is 10,000 words just a long short story?) based on the perspective of an 11 year old girl. The theme is change, and she goes through a lot of things like (almost) moving houses, skipping a grade, going to camp and being teased, friend troubles, etc. The story is written by diary entries, and I keep finding myself having to add more and more completely random stuff to add words. I myself have written in journals for a few years now, and I never just sit down and word-by-word detail the whole day, so I’m not sure how to make my character do that without it seeming really forced. On the other hand, though, I sometimes feel like I have to add more instances for Tia (that’s my MC’s name) to go through, just to add entries.
    Any ideas on how to a) stretch out diary entries and add detail without it seeming forced, and b) combine scenes well so that the story isn’t jumping from place to place would be awesome! Thanks. =)

    • Martina, I can never keep this straight in my head, so I checked Wikipedia:
      Novel over 40,000 words
      Novella 17,500 to 40,000 words
      Novelette 7,500 to 17,500 words
      Short story under 7,500 words

      I’m puzzled about the 10,000 words. Is that how long you want it to be, or is there a reason it has to be that long? Because otherwise, you could just make it whatever length best fits your entries.

    • Have you read Catherine Called Birdie by Karen Cushman? It’s one of my favorites, and written with the diary format. She mixes it up, so some entries are really short (“My fingers are frozen. Too cold to write.”) while others are much longer. Mostly entries focus on one major event, in her life. The main character also goes through phases such as writing out which saint’s day it is, or finding a new curse word each day. I can remember doing similar things in some of my journals. Of course, my younger journals always make me sound even more immature than I was at the time as my writing skills caught up with my actual age. Something to keep in mind.

    • Another good novel to check out that’s (sort of) written in diary form is Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale. It’s written from the point of view of a girl who is locked in a tower for seven years, and keeps a daily diary of what happens. When I was reading it, I got lost in the story so much I didn’t pay much attention to if it sounded like a diary entry or not because I was enjoying the story. I’m sure you already know this, but if your readers love your story and if you tell it well, then you won’t have to worry so much about whether it sounds like a realistic diary entry or not. That being said, one tip for making a diary entry sound more realistic is not to include too much dialogue. I’ve been keeping a journal ever since I was a little girl, and not many of them have dialogue, because I’m writing about something that’s already happened (earlier that day, after I got back from vacation, etc) and therefore don’t remember the words everyone said. Also, to sort of add to what Melissa Mead said, unless there’s a reason for your story to be 10,000 words long, you could just make it as long or as short as you want.

    • Thank you everyone for your advice! And no, Melissa Mead, there is no real reason it has to be 10,000 words, except that’s how long I’d personally like it to be.

  5. Erica Eliza says:

    I agree about the Ugly Duckling. “That’s right, kids, you too can be pretty and storyworthy-once everything about you changes.”
    One editing trick I do is to cut out “saw” when followed by an action. “Felicia saw the unicorn and lassoed it.” vs “Felicia lassoed the unicorn.” If she lassoed the unicorn, your reader can figure out that she saw it first.

  6. Song4myKing says:

    Thanks for this post! I paused reading half-way through to see how many times I use “very” and “could” – and trimmed an embarrassing number. My manuscript still needs a good bit of work before sending it. I do think I’ll have to look carefully at each scene again, just to see if perhaps the important stuff in some of them could be moved to another. And I’ve already cut some repetitious scenes, but I want to double check for those also – First time through, it can feel like I’m cutting or changing a lot, so I’m likely to let some slide. Now it’s time to go back through and re-evaluate.
    Thanks again to Gail, Melissa, and the rest of you who have given me advice!

  7. I’ll keep it short. My mother, who is my main beta reader, always tells me that when I write a story I always tell instead of show what is happening. The only thing is I don’t know how to show instead of tell. Can anyone help explain to me how I can achieve this?

    • I think Gail described it as a camera that zooms in. If you’re telling, it’s zoomed out so you get a big panorama picture with few details. If you show, you’re zooming in so the details are prominent.

      Tell: Tess climbed the tree and looked for danger.
      Show: Tess’s fingers grasped the rough bark as she heaved herself upward, ears alert for any hint of danger.

      First two lines of my WIP:
      For Keita Sage, crossing the valley floor without detection was the easy part of the rescue. (tell)
      She had darted across the brush, her feet sure despite the predawn darkness, but now they trembled inside their awkward, bulky shoes. (show)

    • For me, portraying emotion is where you really want to be showing.

      Jasper was afraid.

      Jasper didn’t speak, but a strange rattling sound came from his direction. It took her a moment to realize what it was. The wooden feet of Jasper’s sofa were shaking against the floor. At last he choked out, “Why are you telling me? I can’t go in there.”

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        A terrific example. Just naming the feeling, as in Jasper was afraid or sad or angry usually falls flat. I love how the emotion gets transmitted to the sofa.

    • Mary E. Norton, I agree with Chrisie V Powell’s examples. I can also add that instead of just saying/telling something (i.e. The typewriter was very expensive), you can infer it in the writing, so when the reader reads it, they understand that the typewriter is expensive without having to be told directly (i.e. She looked at the price tag on the typewriter and shook her head, moving past it to the cheaper models.) Hope that helps!

    • Sara-not-Sarah says:

      It’s hard to show instead of tell. For my main story I’m working on, I move things along fast, but it kind of works for it. Of course, it’s important to include details, but it’s also important not to show too many. Try asking your mom where details would be best added. If details aren’t needed in a certain part, I think they only make things slower. I like what everyone else said, and I think that details are important for some key things: Heightening tension and suspense, making the actual sentences sound better, and putting the reader into the character’s mind. Hope I helped. Good luck!

  8. Does anyone have any thoughts about writing based on your own life experiences? I don’t mean a scene or two inspired by daily life. Rather it would be almost like a memoir but written in the style of fiction and the events of the novel would pass the present. I want to write about my study abroad experience, but make it more interesting, come up with an ending that’s not “she went home and all was well.” I could, but my imagination doesn’t like that idea.
    I looked up some articles about writing on your own life and people say to write the truth. But I started writing just to see what this story would look like, and the character based off myself is so exaggerated (flaws, virtues) she is like another person.
    Has anyone already written/tried writing something like this and have suggestions? Thoughts?

    • If you’re going to write a memoir, of some other type of narrative nonfiction, then you should probably stick to the truth. On the big things. If you fudge a few little details (like make up a small/insignificant conversation) though, probably nobody is going to care or find out. For example in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, it’s generally agreed that the bit with the cats and the very last scene are made up for stylistic/symbolic purposes, despite the book being narrative nonfiction. But sticking to the truth doesn’t mean you can’t make it sound exciting or approach it from a unique angle, even if you didn’t necessarily do anything super wild. For example, the book The Geography of Bliss is basically a travelogue of a journalist who travelled around the world in search of the secret to happiness in different countries. He didn’t like, go to a war zone or explore a rainforest or anything, and most of his experiences were small interactions with local people and events, but he still made it interesting.

      That being said, if you’re writing fiction, don’t let the truth get in the way. Once you pass the line into fiction, you can make anything and everything up. It’s great if you want to talk about your actual experiences, but in fiction that’s not as important as telling a story. So if it happens to fit, great. If it doesn’t, then toss it out and make up whatever you want. The most important thing is telling a story people will want to read. (This applies to nonfiction too, but with fiction you get more leeway since you’re not bound by facts.) As Janet Reid says on her blog Queryshark: “What you’re forgetting is that the story must come first. Accuracy in relating events and dialogue is not something I give a whit about in novels. I care about plot and story.”

      Ultimately though, you need to decide what you want to write: a memoir or a novel.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’ve added your question to my list. In the meanwhile, you might be interested in Joan Abelove’s two young adult books (high school and up), SAYING IT OUT LOUD and GO AND COME BACK, which are both autobiographical fiction, and both stick very closely to what really happened.

    • That’s actually almost exactly what I’m doing with my diary-entry story, Jillian! I’m using my old notebooks (from about 3 years ago). So far, that means I don’t have any advice– sorry!– but I like to know that other people have the same problems that I’m having.

    • Song4myKing says:

      Do you have any kind of a theme, anything that sticks out to you when you think of your experience as a whole?A theme or even a motif could tie the whole thing together and could provide you with ideas for the ending. Or if you have a beginning you really like, you could relate the ending to it (i.e. beginning and ending in the same airport). Or you could end looking forward to the next adventures, specified or unspecified. These kind of things can help make an ending satisfying, even if it’s not glamorous.

  9. Hi everyone! I’m having problems with the ending of my fanfic story. If you’ve read a comment of mine under Mrs. Levine’s “Redeem-ero” post, you’d have learned that Elsa nearly dies, but Jack saves her with True Love’s Kiss.
    The problem is, the kiss is a Deus Ex Machina. I’m looking at my ending and wondering: “Should I find a more creative way to save Elsa?”
    But…before I started doubting, I liked my ending! After all that Jack and Elsa had been through together, the kiss made everything alright.
    Should I change the way she was saved, or should I not worry about it?
    As always, thanks for any thoughts and opinions! : )

    • Your story is fantasy, where True Love’s Kiss is a very real and powerful thing, so I don’t think that your True Love’s Kiss is out of place. I like it. After reading your description of your story so far, it sounds like Jack and Elsa deserve something like that. If you come up with something you like more, then go with it, but I think it sounds good. If you think it’s the best way to end the story, then keep it 100%.

    • Song4myKing says:

      I’d say it fits. I’ve read books where a bizarre, totally unforeseen twist is thrown in near the end. I don’t think this is like that. The kiss fits the world you’re working with and readers will recognize it like they recognize other fairy tale elements.

    • If you like it, keep it. Sure, true love kiss is an age-old trope, but it’s a trope because it *works*. Tropes are tools. And I don’t think it seems particularly like a deus ex machina if he has to work for it. Ex: he has to find Elsa first to kiss her, etc. As long as the kiss is one step in solving the problem, not the *only* step, it shouldn’t be a deus ex machina. But anyways, it’s your story. Don’t get bogged down by what other people might think, and just write what you like.

  10. I love this post. I have trouble with my words (but then, y’all know this), I use too many unnecessary ones to describe unimportant things, and then don’t describe this things that are actually important. Thank you for your advice Mrs. Levine, it is very helpful. (And though you said to omit ‘very’ as often as possible, I don’t think simply saying “it was helpful” conveys HOW helpful it was. 😉 In this case it was ‘very’ helpful.)

    Last week I got a lot of answers to my plotting question and I would like to thank everyone who answered. I’ve been trying new things, and it’s a bit soon to tell, but I think there is definitely some improvement. Thanks guys 🙂

  11. I have a question: I have a character whose basic description would be ‘mage’ or maybe even more accurately ‘local wise man.’ He has a title, which people use to refer to him when talking about him amongst themselves, but I don’t know what they would call him to his face. His proffer demands respect, which is given–and liberally–and as such they cannot call him by his name. My mage/local was man needs a tag. Kings are called “Majesty” Dukes are “Your Grace” princes are “Highness” etc. etc. What can my mate’s tag be. I thought about calling him “Eminence” but that doesn’t really fit the story or people or anything. Then I thought about calling him “O Sage” but that looks like the native American tribe, so that doesn’t work…

    Can anyone think of a suitable form of address? I don’t want it to be super over the top “Your Mighty and Majestic Eminence” or silly “Your All-Knowingness” but any suggestions will be appreciated. Thanks! 🙂

    • And that is supposed to say “his office.” Not “his proffer.” Spellcheck is my arch nemesis. Any day that spellcheck don’t decide I meant a different word six hundred times is a good day.

    • I’ve read several books where there is a character sort of like your mage/local wise man. In those books, other characters call him everything from Hermit to Old Wizened Man (don’t ask). If it is a term of respect, then I would lean more towards tags like Wise One, Magi, Healer, etc. You could also use a word in a different language that means “wise” or “all-knowing.” (Baba Yaga comes to mind, as her name means “grandmother”) If it is a false or slang term, then try names like Old Man (person’s name), Healer of No One, or just a random word in another language that means “false” or “stupid.” Hope this helps!

    • I like Martina’s suggestions, especially Healer of No One. You could try some more names like that. Like Magicless Wizard (I know magicless isn’t a word, but it can be if you make it one), or Keeper of Knowledge. You could also call him something simple, like Wiseman, Savant, Philosopher, or Magi, but from what I’m understanding, you want a title with the word “your” in front of it. Your Sagaciousness is borderline silly sounding, and so is O Clever One. I’ll have to think on this one. In Mrs. Levine’s last blog post, I saw in the comments about where you were having trouble with plotting methods to use to insure your stories reach their ends. I’m a pantser, and so it has been difficult for me in the past to find a way to organize my stories chronologically. After searching around a bit, I finally found an outlining method I can do without going crazy. I actually enjoy doing it. If you go to sarahcradit.wordpress.com, scroll down until you see a search bar on the column to your right. Type in ‘Mitosis: Or, How to Outline When You Suck at Outlining’. The method described in that post works very well for me, and if there are any pantsers looking for an outlining method, you may want to try it. 🙂

    • What about just “sir”? Nice and simple. Or Mr. Sage (or something else)? Similar to how presidents are addressed as Mr. President or Sir.

      • Lady Laisa says:

        Ooh, thanks everyone! Lots of good ideas. I love “Your Sagacity” (it is very formal and also a touch whimsical, which can work) and teacher could be used by the village children. “Healer of no-one” sounds like something his nephew would call him. He isn’t an old man, but he can change his appearance, so that could be funny if people called him “wizened old man” when he is only in his thirties.

        Emma, I will check out that post. Thanks!

  12. Goldenqueenclarion says:

    Fly with you!
    I’m in a bit of a jam with (one of ) my book. (s)
    In this book, (which is fantasyish?) the MC has super strength, which is a MAJOR plot point. however, I cannot seem to think of a reason why he has this ability. If I remove it, I lose the whole story, since it circles around the queen of the land manipulating him for his powers.
    any advice would be helpful, I thank thee.

    • Have you tried brainstorming a list of ideas? It seems like this is where one would come in handy.

      Is he the only one with unusual abilities? The first thing to come to mind is the Graced in “Graceling”. They are people born being particularly good at something, so one might be strength, another swimming, another cooking, just about anything. It could be that this is an unusual genetic thing that pops up rarely, so that only a small percentage of the population has it. Maybe his parents were unusual. Maybe there’s a secret society of strong people he doesn’t know about yet. Maybe he’s descended from a famous warrior.

      If he’s the only one, when did he get his strength? As an infant? Young child? Puberty? He could have accidentally tried a potion as a kid, or touched a magical object. He could have been ‘blessed’ by a magical being. He could have been bitten by a particularly strong animal, or accidentally shared blood with it (both were wounded and cuts touched, for instance). His mom ate a certain magic food while pregnant with him. He was raised by a crazy-strict ex-soldier who pushed him to do difficult exercises all his life. He found a dear friend/sibling in danger and needed the strength, and a pitying magical being gave it to him.

      I’m having fun. Anybody else want to join in?

      • I asked my daughter and husband. They pointed out Hercules, suggesting your MC could be related to him, or also be a demigod. My daughter also mentioned exercise and drinking ‘a potion with yucky stuff in it’.

        My husband is brainstorming out loud and I’m copying it down:
        The MC sought out the ability in some way, perhaps by channeling the strength of a totem/spirit animal. He’s mentioning Sigfried who drank dragon’s blood (the old Norse myth that Wagner’s Ring Cycle is based on). Some kind of secret parentage, which would also call Hercules to mind, and play with the manipulative queen being jealous of his parentage like Hera. Is it connected to a specific body part, like the Biblical Sampson’s hair? Or live a certain lifestyle to maintain it (Sampson was not allowed to consume grapes, as well as not cutting his hair)? He could have followed a special path or gone through a certain ordeal. Going with fairytales, maybe he did a good deed for some magical being in disguise and received it as a blessing. It could be tied to some other element or force of nature, such as being tied to a certain tree and so having the strength of the tree as long as it isn’t cut down. Is there some special token he carries with him that must be protected, like a special knotted rope in Hinduism, or the Greek myth where their life is tied to a piece of wood? His mother could have put protection on him, on purpose like Achilles’ mother or not as purposefully like Lily Potter. He could have grown up wrestling with wild animals like Tarzan and Mowgli and Pecos Bill. In folk tales, they are often giants, so he could be unnaturally large (although it would be fun/ironic if he were smaller than average). Does he have a hidden weakness? What if the strength is actually inside everyone but you need special training/enlightenment/focus and meditation to access it (more Eastern)? What if he has to renew his strength daily by following a certain dream or doing a certain ritual?

    • Goldenqueenclarion, that sounds like a really neat book! I wrote a short story about a kid whose eyes changed colors (not just the iris, mind you, the entire eye) during his last week of life. The disease that made his eyes change color also gave him certain magical abilities. Your character could have something like this happen to him, where he goes through a sickness or something at some point in his life, and when he recovers (slowly but surely,) he is granted with super strength. Or, to use another example, some magical creature– dwarf, elf, fairy, could heal him from the sickness and their healing magic had side effects. Hope this helps!

  13. The Sixth Hobbit says:

    Hi Gail,
    I’m trying to write a book right now and I’m really struggling, so I thought maybe I’d take a creative writing class online to help and motivate me. Do you have any courses that you would recommend? I know you teach a writing workshop but I think it’s in NY and I’m stuck in California 🙁 Do you have any suggestions for good online writing courses or good writing books I could try? Thank you so much!!

    • Sorry, I’m not Gail, but I wanted to mention that fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson teaches a university course on creative writing and uploaded his lectures onto youtube for everyone to watch. I loved them and learned a ton. Search for Brandon Sanderson writing course and you should find it.

      My favorite writing books are:
      Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine (of course)
      50 Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
      Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan
      The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker (super long, but worth it if you’ve got the time)

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Thank you, Christie V Powell! My other book on writing, which is based on this blog, is WRITER TO WRITER. And if you click on the About tab on this website and then on the For Writers tab, you’ll see a list of other books that I found helpful when I was starting out.

        But I don’t know any online courses. Sorry!

  14. The Florid Sword says:

    I found this post interesting. I have the opposite problem, which is to write only telling and no showing. So my question is: how does one put more into a book, without padding or adding so many characters and subplots they simply cannot be kept straight? Thanks!

    • Well, like we were discussing above, I think it involves adding more detail, and specifically detail that adds to the story/mood/atmosphere. Example of adding description that adds to the mood:

      The gloomy gray sky pressed down upon them. The morning sun had not yet reached the canyon edge, if it was able to pierce the clouds at all, and everything below was cloaked in shadow. Uprooted trees and piles of rocks at the bases of cliffs showed that the windstorm had raged here too.

      Give the characters some space to react with one another and see what they do; you can cut down to the essentials later (I always have to do this with dialogue: write out the whole long conversation first, then see what can be left out).
      Example of characters bonding:

      It was a game they’d played often enough. Carli usually started it, kicking a chunk of cement, a piece of wooden furniture, anything that caught her eye. The idea was to keep the object moving and the only rule was that no one was allowed to talk about it.
      Keita scowled and kicked the stone. She had intended to send it far out of reach, but her aim was off and Carli blocked it with one foot and then kicked it back with the other. Sienna glanced from one girl to another, and then grinned and charged for the rock. She reached it seconds before Carli and sent it flying back to Zuri. Keita watched for several minutes, until Zuri made a wild kick that sent the rock careening toward a steep drop beside them. She couldn’t help it. The rock was inches from the drop when Keita intercepted, knocking it back for Sienna to catch.

      I’ve read several books where the author is really good at coming up with interesting characters and plots, but they just keep throwing in more stuff when the story could have benefited by slowing down, limiting some of the characters and plots, and giving each one more ‘screen time’ to fully develop. (I hope it’s not rude of me to give examples: I personally feel that some of Brandon Mull’s and Rick Riordan’s books do this, especially later books in their series).

  15. My wife was once a guest writer for our local newspaper. She wrote seven 750-word op-ed columns over six months. Her “problem” was cutting to the spec. Typically she would labor to get to 1000-1200 words then hand me the column saying “I can’t cut this any more” – pretty much like Kitty. To her surprise, I usually tightened it within a half-hour with no changes to content. She has bestowed upon me a Title:

    The best editor I’ve ever known

    Op-eds are not fiction. But I wonder if the same “techniques” would not apply to fiction.

    One “famous” example (to science fiction and Robert Heinlein fans). In 1962 Heinlein submitted a 220,000-word draft of Stranger in a Strange Land and was told to cut it.

    He cut some “controversial” content regarding sex and religion, but mostly he tightened it to 160,000 words (over one-quarter). According to the Wikipedia entry:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stranger_in_a_Strange_Land

    Heinlein preferred the original manuscript and described the heavily edited version as “telegraphese” (“clipped”) – yet, the novel went on to sell over 5-million copies and remains in print.

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