Friday, August 3, 2012

Less is More

Despite Thursday being my usual day to post to the blog, I went on a little trip yesterday.  By the evening when I returned home, I was ready to write a post, but lacked energy to upload my photos for it.  I admit…I was lazy and procrastinated until Friday. 

However, I haven’t been completely lazy this week.  I’ve been working on editing my second novel (from here on, I’ll call it by name:  The Art of Dying).

The novel was a mess, rather like this oregano
This novel of mine has had many adventures.  First of all, it was my oldest story idea, so it changed in my mind from a fantasy, to a historical novel of the Middle Ages, to a Western, and finally to what I actually wrote – a contemporary novel set in Fort Worth, Texas.  Also, as an experiment to see how dependent I was on word-processing, I wrote it all by hand in notebooks (it turns out I’m not very dependent at all, but word-processing is still extremely nice to have).   Then I typed it up, editing it as I went.  Then I decided to submit it to a contest, so I edited it again.  Then I didn’t win the contest, so I decided to re-edit it, because I had a sneaking suspicion some of it was largely unintelligible from too much complexity.  Finally, I started sending out query letters, but when two were ignored and four refused, I decided it needed to be cut down from its mammoth length of 198,000 words. 

So, that is where The Art of Dying is now, poor thing – in the middle of being chopped up.  I love the novel to pieces, which is why I refuse to let it rest.  I want it to be as perfect as I can possibly make it.  Sometimes I think it’s brilliant; sometimes I hate it.  The one thing I know for sure, though, is that in its long form it was a monument of authorial self-indulgence.  Since I have practically maternal fondness for the main character, I put in absolutely every scrap of information I could about him, and the story quickly assumed epic proportions.  However, much of what I said was redundant or extraneous, so it really had to be cut.

Now let me indulge in an analogy.

I’ve mentioned that this summer I’ve been enjoying a little gardening.  Well, one of the things I planted, in a charming terra cotta pot, was oregano.  I opened up the seed package and looked inside, expecting (since it’s a perennial) to find some good size seeds, capable of producing something that will live indefinitely.  I was wrong.  There was a fine, black powder on the white paper, completely impossible to separate effectively for individual sowing.  So I just sort of tapped the seeds over the pot, watered it sparingly as suggested, and hoped some of the black powder had actually made it into the soil.

Well, some did.  In fact, I think all of it did, and mostly in a three inch circle slightly to one side of the middle.  This amazing forest of teensy oregano sprouts burst into existence about a week after my inept planting attempts.  They were so tightly packed they felt fuzzy to the touch, like a tiny, velvet carpet.  It was quite charming actually.  I felt proud of them. 

Now it's stronger and better, after pruning!
The problem was that obviously none of them had enough room to develop.  There was a sort of Darwinian struggle going on, with a few sprouts poking their leaves a bit higher than the others in an attempt to dominate and survive, but help was needed.  I sat down beside the pot after they’d gotten about an inch high, and thinned them quite mercilessly.  Out of probably 60 oregano sprouts, only 20 uncertain ones were left standing. 

They quickly recovered from their uncertainty, though.  With enough room to stretch their roots, they grew in leaps and bounds.  It’s only been two weeks, and all of them have quadrupled in size.  They’re recognizable oregano plants now, and any day they'll be ready to give me leaves for some tasty dish or other.

So why did I tell you this tale of garden success?  Because it turns out that thinning the oregano pot is about like cutting a novel down to a reasonable size.  Your story comes pouring out onto the page, dense and wordy.  You feel incredibly proud of writing such a long book and pat yourself on the back.  But then…rereading it, you realize that maybe the story is struggling to survive amidst all the extraneous fluff. 

Slowly and carefully you start to thin out words, sentences, paragraphs, feeling nervous the whole time that maybe something is getting lost in the process.  Then as it continues, you begin to see a cleaner narrative emerging, and a bit of excitement touches you.  Even though no one in their right mind starts out eager to sit down and mutilate their work, after a while, it becomes almost fun to sift through each chapter, looking for the essential so that the tangents and distractions can go by the wayside. 

My hope is that at the end of the entire process in a week or two, I’ll find that – much like my oregano – the themes and ideas and images which I tried to work into the storyline will have grown clearer and stronger and more productive, so that in fact the novel will be more itself, thanks to being thinned and pruned. I'm sure every other writer has had that hope and that eventual experience.  It's a pleasant feeling to anticipate. 

Like these blueberries, my writing life is steadily developing
My first attempts at novels were all extremely long, but for years I’ve been unable to muster up the gumption to cut them down to size.  That’s why I feel like I crossed a barrier as a writer in finally being able to take The Art of Dying and distill it down to its essence.  It’s good to look back over the time I’ve been writing and say, ‘I’ve matured, because now I can look with a properly critical eye at what I’ve written and really improve it.’ 

Such breakthroughs are often the best moments of being a writer or an artist, I’ve found.  It's good to feel that we are becoming our true selves, don't you think? 


  1. Good luck with the pairing down. I'm sort of writing a fantasy...but in story verse at the - A and B might collide at one point. I just have to keep everything straight :) The 'Novel' not my forte, that's why I like short verse.

    1. Short verse does have its own appeal - I find I write more of it when I'm extra busy.

      Your verse fantasy sounds interesting! I thought about writing some stories in verse one time, but decided it might be safer in prose. Ever since then, though, I've admired anyone who IS bold enough to write a long story in verse. I'm wishing you luck with it!

    2. Thank you. Most of my story verse have been the result of participating in the prompt site:
      Which is a weekly list of 12 or 13 wordles - words.
      And it just depends on what the words are to what story verse gets written. Most of the Mermaid Verse (I have two or three of those going -
      I haven't ordered or separated them out yet...)they can also be found on that (my)blog and are also from word lists from the Whirl though some came from other sources.
      Each piece more or less can stand on it's own, but linked they make a nice continuing story.

      Have a great evening and as always thanks for your visits, and comments. I finally added you to my word press blog list so I can find you easier.