Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

Writer Process: Making a Story Shorter

Monday, July 8th, 2013

I find that each new writing project is a challenge, as I try to figure out again the process of creating a story.

Back at the end of April I set out to write a short story in one of my preexisting story worlds. I had no characters, no plot, no theme. So I did brainstorming sessions, and I tried writing bits of story just to see what might be there. Eventually I had a complete draft. I’m never quite sure how this happens, and it doesn’t always happen, but it did this time. 9900 words. Much longer than I’d hoped, but it was the first story I’d managed to finish this year, so that was something.

I sent it off for critique, got comments back that were mostly minor and full of encouragement — and then I didn’t look at the thing for a month because… I don’t know why.

When I finally started working on it again, things went in an unexpected direction. My tendency is to underwrite first drafts, so second drafts are always longer, but this story was the opposite. One comment from the beta reader was that the opening pages could be shortened, so that’s where I started and, painlessly, just by striking out excess wordage — an excess that had become suddenly obvious — the story was 500 words shorter. So I went through the entire manuscript and did a similar prune, striking out phrases and sentences. This took it down to around 9200 words.

Next I started looking for scenes to cut. Right away I found one that was clearly unnecessary. It involved a subplot/problem that contributed to a character’s difficulties without contributing in a meaningful way to the climax of the story. So I reduced it to a sentence and got rid of a few hundred words.

I found two or three places with repeated information and consolidated those.

I found a short scene that existed just so I could convey one piece of information. That information could be easily communicated in one sentence of dialog in a different scene, so that’s what I did.

I trimmed and trimmed and trimmed, one or two words at a time, and the story didn’t suffer for it. It got better. And of course not everything involved cutting words. I added them as needed to clarify character and motives, but the net word count kept dropping.

The last one hundred words were really hard, but I finally found a two-sentence paragraph that had been made irrelevant by my revisions. When that was gone, I only needed to get rid of a few more words, and then I was done. I’d brought the story down to my goal of 8000 words.

This is the first time I can remember cutting a story this hard, which just goes to show that every story is different. I’ve got at least three more that I want to write this year, along with finishing the novel. I have no idea how I’ll manage any of it, but that’s always the case.

I guess I’ll know when I get there.

Update on the novel-in-progress

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

This has been the process for the current novel-in-progress:

Draft 1: trust the process, tell the story, make up stuff as needed.

Draft 2: fill in holes, add details, consult reality**.

(** this means “research stuff” or “use Google to consult the global hive mind.” The Internet is awesome.)

As of today I’m not quite 2/3 of the way through draft 2. So far the manuscript has grown about 7,000 words since draft 1. That number surprises me. I would have guessed maybe 4,000 at most.

Soon I’ll be rustling up beta readers…

Heavy Lifting

Friday, June 15th, 2012

There’s a theory out in the writing world that if you just keep writing, your subconscious will do all the heavy lifting, and out of the chaos a story will coalesce. Personally, I’m skeptical. Brainstorming sessions involving non-stop writing are great for generating ideas out-of-nowhere, and it’s not uncommon that I’ll get useful and spontaneous dialogs going between my characters this way. This is all very valuable stuff.


I’ve spent several days now coaxing into existence characters, plot, scenes, and general ideas for the new novel-in-progress. I’ve got several thousand words in “brainstorming” files and, much to my surprise, over 6,000 words of actual story. The catch is, the story so far is neither continuous nor coherent. I’m envisioning a book in four parts. So far, I’ve got the opening scene and closing scene of part 1, a tiny bit of part 2, some in-between stuff, and lots of ideas for what else needs to be going on in the first 15,000 words or so. But the ideas that I have are not organized. The conflicts aren’t clear. The groundwork on which the remainder of the novel will rest is not at all well-established.

So it’s time for some heavy lifting, which unfortunately for me is a conscious process. I would love it if my subconscious would take over plotting, but it hasn’t happened yet. For me, this is the fallacy of words-per-day writing goals. If I’m unsure of the details of the plot, or if I don’t have a real vision of the next scene, knowing what to write about is problematical.

So I’m off to try to hammer disparate ideas together into a coherent opening plot, in the hope that I can get to the point where writing the scenes is like taking dictation. That happened last night when I wrote the closing scene of part 1. Usually, writing is hard. When it’s not – when a scene just flows – that’s a rare reward, and one of my favorite moments of the writing process.

A Writer’s Internal Dialog

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

DAY 1: You really need to write a new short story. Don’t get anxious about it. It’s not going to be that hard. It’s the second in a series, after all. You know the protagonist and the story world. So just figure out a plot!

Yeah, okay. But I think today I should work on the website.

DAY 2: You really need to do some work on that story.

Okay, okay! I’ll do some brainstorming. Some random writing. That’s good, right? There! That’s like a thousand words, with ideas and everything! Good enough, for now.

You only spent an hour on it.

And your point is?

DAY 3: Go do some more brainstorming on the story. Develop those ideas you had yesterday. They’re good!

They are good. And random writing isn’t too hard. I can crank up my word count easily this way. Hold on, I need to check my email. Hey, I wonder if anybody responded to my post on facebook? Hey look, I’ve done two hundred words already. Only eight hundred to go. Why don’t more people talk to me on twitter? I am too working. How about if I set an alarm to go off ten minutes from now, and I won’t stop writing for those ten minutes, no matter what stupid ideas I type! Huh? You want me do another ten minutes?

DAY 4: Okay. You’ve got a lot of useful ideas from your brainstorming sessions. Now you need to put together a coherent backstory, so you understand what’s going on.

Can I write by hand?

Whatever works.

Okay, I’m writing by hand.

Are you done already?

DAY 5: That was a pretty good job bringing together the back story, and you’ve got a good grasp of the plot. But there aren’t any scenes. Let’s just see what happens if you try Write-or–


Write-or-Die. It doesn’t matter what you write, just get some words down.

Okay, okay! There! Thirteen hundred words – though they’re not the right words.

Better than nothing.

DAY 6: Time for you to start the actual story.

I tried. I’m not getting anywhere.

Try this: break it down. Write out a goal, a theme, a concept, and then a short plot summary.

Uh, okay. Maybe I can do that…

Hey, it’s been a while. What are you doing?

I’m writing the story! As soon as I started on the plot summary, it just happened! I found myself writing the story, with scenes and everything! 2700 words!


They’re not the right words.

Never mind.

DAY 7: Okay, you’ve got all the parts figured out, you’ve got everything you need to pull together a solid draft. Go for it!

I don’t feel like writing today. I AM trying! There. I did the opening. That’s the hardest part, right? And it’s enough for today.

DAY 8: Let’s pretend yesterday didn’t happen. Today you’re going to sit down and make this story real—

Leave me alone! I decided to take my laptop into a different room and now everything’s working. I know what I’m doing. I’m into it…

There! I’m done! A solid draft and it’s good! Whoa … did nine hours just go by?

Congratulations on finishing the draft! Tomorrow, you revise.