What’s Important?

A couple weeks ago, I stopped writing my WIP.  I had a fairly good beginning, but I was still unclear about the ending and middle— I wanted to do things intentionally, laying clues and weaving plot lines for the fantasy mystery I was planning.  After a couple false starts early on, I thought I finally had a solid beginning, and could begin to plan the rest, based on the promises I had already made.  For two weeks, I brainstormed.  With a blank piece of paper, a pen, and ambient productivity music from 99U, I worked out everything I wanted to do.  All the clues, all the reasoning in between, all the red herrings I needed.  I worked out everything.  After I finished, I began weaving all the different clues together into a timeline, outlining where characters needed to be and how they would arrive at answers.  It was humongous, but that’s what I expected— once written, it would be much tighter.

Then I looked at my beginning.  25k in, I was just getting to the choice, halfway through the first act.  That meant I was planning on having 8 times my current wordcount— 200k words.  For a fantasy MG mystery.  That’s not actually that bad, but considering the giant outline I had, even if I condensed it, that 200k wouldn’t be the maximum figure.  This novel was looking way thicker than I wanted it to be.  Not only that, but I had only outlined the first half so far, and the scene halfway through felt an awful lot like a denouement.  The entire thing felt wrong.

So I had to stop again.  While I like the idea of a complex mystery, there are limits to what a single novel can hold.  Glorious entanglements are one thing— confusing people and taking too long to tell a story is another.

Everyone is the hero of their own story.  Constantly characterize people.  All of this is great, but not every character can have their own plot line, mystery, and social security number.  Sometimes, even though you’ve figured these characters out front to back, you’re going to have to leave something out.  In a short story, that’s easy— I spend no time figuring out anyone’s character, so I don’t have to worry about leaving anything out.  Anything I add is more than I expected.  But in a novel, when I’m trying to plan ahead… I almost feel like if I figure a character out, I have to include them completely. That works for the main character, but almost no one else.

The same goes for a world.  I can avoid worldbuilder’s disease, stage one; I know when to stop worldbuilding and when to start writing.  This WIP proves I haven’t yet learned to avoid stage two.  I have a world, detailed, functional, interesting— now leave it out.  What’s important here?  Do we need to know about the architecture?  The weather?  The religion?  In his SF/F lecture series on YouTube, Brandon Sanderson says to take only a few aspects of physical and cultural setting to weave into the story.  (Lecture 2, if you need to know.)  Climate, religion, and weather for one book— make those fascinating, and people won’t mind about the rest.  Geography, food, and pets.  Pop culture, flora and fauna, and gender roles.  If you attempt religion, race relations, customs, history, occupations, pets, castes, government, and fashion, then add architecture, geography, weather, and night/day differences, it’s TOO MUCH.  That list, in fact, is a pretty good approximation of what I had in my WIP.

So, again, what’s important?  Say you want rain as a metaphor for sadness, but rain in this place is hugely different from earthly rain— is weather one of your setting elements?  If yes, explain!  If no, show that it’s raining, but don’t explain how.  The metaphor is the important thing.  If it can do double duty with setting and metaphor, great.  If it’s crowding the setting and ruining the metaphor, leave it.  Unless they love travel brochures, the reader wants the metaphor.

So what’s important?  Something must be.  Pick three things for setting, pick three characters (protagonist, antagonist, dynamic character, as described by the Hollywood Formula— that usually works well), and stick to that.  Keeping your setting and characters down will generally keep the plot down as well, but sometimes it’s useful to tell yourself, I’m writing a mystery, not a romance.  I’m writing a romance, not a thriller.  I’m writing a thriller, not a board book.  While genre boundaries are brilliant when pushed, they’re really useful for keeping things crisp.

Now, all of this is macro stuff.  Character, setting, plot— those are the skeleton of a story.  Do not do this with writing style.  “What’s important here?  Certainly not punctuation, spaces, or vowels!”  Drastic example, but still.  Don’t neglect to describe something because it’s not necessary.  You can one-line-describe your setting too, if you have to.  Mention the elementary school teachers, don’t go into their history, or why they’re still around in a pygmy-ruled dystopian society.  If you’re busy describing why the school is lit by candlelight instead, no one will care.

Sorry, that went on a tangent.  The point is this: although you can get by with just describing what characters do and say, there’s a whole lot more than that to a good story.  What are they thinking?  What are their emotions?  Don’t gut your writing style in favor of what’s “important”.  Keep noticing things, making jokes, and telling a good story.

Everyone likes a complex story, but Shangri-La had it right— everything in moderation.  Keep your setting aspects controlled to avoid worldbuilder’s disease stage two.  Keep the characters you want to explore controlled to prevent conflicting, tangling plot lines.  You are a storyteller, and your goal, today and tomorrow, is to entertain.  Alfred Hitchcock said the length of a movie should be directly proportional to the size of the audience’s bladder.  While novels have room to play with that, the same is still true: tell your story so that people will enjoy it, not be bored by it.

Create responsibly.

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19 Comments

  1. Lightning Thief was 87,000 words, not 180,000, and it isn’t really MG anyway. It’s on that line between MG and YA, leaning into YA. A good target word count for MG is 20,000-70,000. I’m afraid I couldn’t concentrate on the rest of the post because I couldn’t get past the word count issue. You might need to become a little more familiar with what is appropriate for MG novels before you worry too much about writing the rest. Don’t feel bad. My first MG (trunked) was a 130,000 word monster. And before you pull out the JK Rowling card, HP 1 was 76,900. Yeah she increased her word count with every book, but debuts need to shoot to a smaller goal. Once your books sell like hotcakes, you can write what you want. There are a lot of online resources to help you learn the ropes of MG writing and some great writer’s forums and groups to join. They taught me a lot when I was writing that 130k disaster I mentioned earlier. Good luck.

    Reply
    • I apologize, that was a complete goof. I got the numbers mixed up. Your explanation makes much more sense.

      As for selling a long debut novel, even in middle grade, I’d say that it can still be done. You could write a 200k behemoth and sell it if it’s good and worth reading— but if you write 200k useless words, it’s on the short road to the trash can. But I don’t believe you should wait until you’re published to start experimenting with boundaries.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  2. Ha! For once I read a post and feel moderately confident. Since I kind of wrote the novel before I did the world-building, now I’m going back and actually doing the world building. I keep going back and forth between being bored of world building and having a minor case of world building disease, but because I have the actual story, I can know what is actually important in the story, and what isn’t, and I think it actually helps. It’ll be harder when I actually go put that world building into the story itself, of course, but…still. I feel like I’m on the right track.

    Confidence is kind of a weird feeling.

    Reply
    • That’s good! I’m glad you’re working through it.

      Confidence is a good feeling. Be confident.

      Reply
      • Yeah. So far, the only problem I’m having with world building is that occasionally, it reminds me of the world in Way of Kings.

        Actually, confidence is kind of a scary feeling. I don’t know that I like it.

      • Don’t worry about that. It might remind you, but as long as you’re aware of it, it probably won’t remind anyone else.

        You’ll learn to like it. You’ve got plenty more confidence ahead of you.

      • Hopefully so.

        I’m not so sure about that, but okay.

  3. “Create responsibly.” Now you’re giving me plot bunnies. Can you imagine? Creativity is like drinking alcohol. If not done responsibly, you end up with disaster and damage done and… this metaphor is actually really close to truth. I’m going to stop now.

    I agree. But I am hardly qualified to speak on this topic. It is very hard for me to get world-builder’s disease of any stage. However, I do agree about including what’s important. That controls a lot of a story, not just the world-building. It’s what makes promises, too.

    So, here’s my question. Are you back to writing your WIP? And do you have to start over again?

    Reply
  4. This is awesome. I definitely have problems with the worldbuilders’s disease. I just love figuring out all the tiny details, but I fail to realize that most of my readers could care less on some of it (most of it). Most of the worldbuilding is for me.

    Anywho, I wish you luck on your novel.

    Reply
  5. I don’t seem to have problems with needing to cut unnecessary stuff to make a book shorter. Nor do I have problems with too much worldbuilding, but rather the opposite in both cases. However, I could still use some work on including important stuff–and this is helpful to remind me that I need to pay a little ,ore attention to those things. Thanks. I’ll work on it, when I actually write again. Or edit. Whichever comes first.

    Reply
  6. Oh, man. There is quite a lot of stuff that makes it into my worlds that never makes the final cut… such as the fact that one of my protagonists has a condition that makes his bones less dense and a bit more easily broken than other people’s… but it hardly matters since people treat him like he’s made of glass anyway.

    Reply

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