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  • How do you know when to expand?

    Posted by Natàlia Prats on 17 November 2023 at 19:37

    Hello there! After this week’s Friday challenge I was considering the passage I worked on, and I have a question. Well, loads of them, but I’ll focus on this one:

    I was thinking that this three-line paragraph I wrote could be expanded considerably. I just thought it was more fitting to have it brief for this scene. I think the rhythm is better this way.

    However, how do I know I am right? I am playing it by ear, and if it still looks good after a while, I trust that I chose the best option. But how to know in advance? Or is this always something you have to let mature, like cheese or brandy?

    I mean, in a longer version I could make the characters more alive. Show them off. Show their personalities and motivations better. It’s just that the shorter version doesn’t detract from the story and the longer one wouldn’t move it forward. And it seems to be a universal truth that editing involves shortening in order to sharpen. That’s a nice image, editing is the writer’s pencil sharpener. Or shaver.

    And yet, I keep thinking that, if Tolkien had thought the same, TLOTR would be just about as long as The Hobbit.

    It’s just that sometimes it feels very much like I’m working in the dark.

    Natàlia Prats replied 3 months, 1 week ago 4 Members · 7 Replies
  • 7 Replies
  • bridget king

    18 November 2023 at 13:48

    Hi there Natalia. To answer your question fully, I’d need to see more of your work, but basically, this is something where beta readers are very useful. Usually, the problem is that readers don’t feel closely enough involved with your main character. They need to feel that they are living the events of the book through that person, seeing the world the character inhabits through their eyes and feeling all their emotions and physical sensations. In early drafts your beta readers can be asked to look at whether the POV character draws them in enough. If not, you can look at that character’s scenes to see what else you can do to make them real. If you look up my piece in this week’s Feedback Friday, you will see some absolutely spot-on feedback about this exact point from Harry Bingham. It sums up what every writer could do better.

    • Natàlia Prats

      18 November 2023 at 18:26

      Thank you Bridget, that makes all the sense.

      To tell the truth, it’s this week’s assignment that made me think about this. I found a very short fragment that I thought was perfect to illustrate the point. After a while, I wondered if I had understood it correctly, especially because I’m finding it really hard to comment on the other posts this week. What if I didn’t understand what it was about? Oh no, what if I’ve got it all upside down? And so on. That thing that most of us do so often.

      I’m going to have a look at your FF post and read some more words of wisdom. Cheers!

  • Laure Van Rensburg

    18 November 2023 at 19:06

    Hi Natalia,

    To be honest, it is something that comes with practise. It’s really about learning what are the important moments in a story and making sure to give them the space to breathe. It also always help to have an external pair of eyes. They are things that as the writer we cannot see because we are too close to the story.

    Editing doesn’t necessarily means sharpening or cutting. For example, I tend to write very lean first drafts, the bones of the story. Then during my edits I go about adding layers, developing the scenes that needs to go in deeper, add more to characterisation, etc… so my word count tend to increase during subsequent drafts.

    I don’t know your story but your extract mentions that Eddie is trying to communicate with his flatmate Alex, which is proving difficult. Is it the first time Eddie tries to communicate? Is it an important message? If yes, then the scene deserves space. For example, developing it to add tension — will he, won’t he succeed? It is a way to get the reader invested and keep reading so they can find out the outcome. Also it is a potential situation that can be used to develop characterisation — how does Eddie react to failing to communicate? Is he sad, angry, frustrated, driven? That can show what kind of person he is.

    However if it is the 12th time he is trying to communicate then no need to go into details as it would end up just repeating what has already been said before.

    If a writer skims and sharpens too much then they can end up with a story that only glosses over the surface, when you want a rich, layered story and characters that will draw the readers in.

    It also helps to pick up the novels you love and analyse them — where did the author develops a scene, where did they skim over, where do they show, when do they tell, etc…

    I hope this helps.

    • Natàlia Prats

      18 November 2023 at 20:47

      Errr… clicked the wrong button. Please see below.

  • Natàlia Prats

    18 November 2023 at 20:46

    Hi Laure, thank you, your answer is very helpful.

    I tend to do something similar to you – I am in a hurry to lay down the story while working on the first draft, so I know I’m going to have to add a lot of stuff later while editing the whole lot or while revising before continuing. So when people take for granted that any draft needs to be mowed down like the Brazilian jungle it really takes me aback.

    When I wrote the extract you’ve read I did it with the purpose you mention: I thought that, between the First Great Failure (last week’s extract) and the Successful One it would be better if there were some more attempts. But then presenting them in the same way as the first one would be, as you point out, reiterative and boring. Hence this paragraph-length scene, and possibly one or two more, tops. This case felt quite clear to me. But in other occasions it doesn’t: should I describe the magnificent balcony view, even if it is not relevant to the story? Should I spend time talking about their friends? And so on. I tend to use the “only if it moves the story forward” rule, but sometimes it feels too minimalist.

    The novel analysing is a fantastic idea! I’ve been doing this partially for a long time – after uni you never read a book the same way you used to before. But I think I should make a list of things I want to research, and then when I re-read a favourite I should check up on those aspects especially.

    You make a lot of great points and I’ll keep your advice in mind, thanks again.

  • Libby Leyland

    19 November 2023 at 10:33

    Hi Natàlia, lots of good advice here from Laure, Bridget and yourself. I know the feeling about being taken aback at how editing is sometimes viewed only or mainly as reduction.

    Bridget’s point about thin characterisation is important. Thin settings are another potential problem, the scenes that seem to occur in a featureless floating space. Harry Bingham mentions these as a weakness in some of the writing he sees.

    I think some of your question comes down to your own voice and preferences. As Laure says, there are practicalities which have to be considered, and you need an awareness of your reader’s experience of your story. You also need to know what sort of writing you want to produce. George Saunders has a very useful exercise in his book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but he provides a story extract and asks you to cut it until you feel you can’t cut anymore without losing something so significant that you feel it would no longer work well as fiction. When I’d cut quite a lot I realised the remainder was so boring to me as a reader that I wouldn’t read a story written like this! I back pedalled and reinstated the details that made the extract feel like part of an interesting story world with interesting characters. I found my level, for this extract at least. Very spare prose can be wonderful but I like more fullness. Having said that, I still have the fault of underwriting and a lot of my redrafting is about sorting out details and atmosphere 🙂 And all sorts of other things I don’t get right.

    Keep rereading and analysing favourite novels. I think that’s vital. Analyse ones you don’t like too, or as much of them as you can read! As you say, it’s time consuming but going down blind alleys with your own writing can take up many hours as well.

    • Natàlia Prats

      19 November 2023 at 14:46

      Hi Libby, thank you for answering. I have heard about that book but I haven’t read it, maybe I should have a look, it sounds interesting.

      Yes, getting to know my own voice is a bit difficult. It’s all about acquiring experience, isn’t it?