When Not to Write

For those of you who feel that writers must write always, don’t get up in arms thinking I’m espousing (how’s that for a $50-word?) a movement away from writing. What I’m talking about is only writing what’s relevant to the story.

This question came up from friend Dan Absalonson via voicemail for ‘Get Published’ and the more I think about it, the more important it feels to me personally. Dan’s question, in a nutshell, was when should I be changing scenes and POV and how do I explain all that nitty gritty stuff that happens in between?

Before I answer that, let me stage a bit of an example. The story is a typical fantasy quest story. Our heros have just survived an ambush and are wearily resting. Their sword arms ache and they are covered in cuts, bruises and blood. Now what?

Sounds like a good place to end that particular scene. Why? Simply put, we don’t care to hear about how they pulled their water-skins out of the saddlebags from their horses, pour a bit of the cold water onto a cloth and gently wipe the blood off their bodies so they can dress their wounds. We don’t care that they are bone-weary but cook a meager supper, which they eat, then lay out their bedrolls and go to sleep.

I mean, we DO care about what they’re doing because they are awesome characters and we lover everything about them, but we don’t need to see their every step, hear every snore. At least, I don’t think we do. It’s easy enough to get caught up in the minute (not time, min-u-tay, only a $10-word this time) of the story. Fantasy novels are supposed to be immersive, aren’t they? But do we care to see a character dress? How about go to the latrine?

The answer is a qualified maybe. We need to see those things if they MOVE THE STORY FORWARD (not shouting, just emphasizing a point). For example, if the heroine is dressing and she slips a dagger into her bodice because she expects she might need to use it, you might want to mention that ahead of time. If you only bring it up because you like describing a woman’s frilly underthings, maybe you should be writing in a different genre.

Here is another example. In fantasy quest stories, characters typically do a lot of travelling (called questing as mentioned earlier in the sentence). Travel by foot is extremely slow and by wagon or horseback only marginally less so. Do you need to mention every plodding step? I hope not!

An attack by an evil wizard who is trying to prevent them from meeting their comrades might be worth mentioning. In this case you might want a scene for step A (i.e. the beginning of the question), Step D (attack by the wizard), Step L (they stop to rest and discover a magic sword or a rusting tin-woodsman or whatever) and so on.

My personal rule of thumb is, when its hard and monotonous to write, it’s probably that way to read too. I try to one of a couple things at that point: (1) I ask myself if this is really necessary and cut it if it isn’t, (2) I ask myself if it is really necessary and if it is, find a way to only focus on the important bits and write those in an interesting manner.

I usually find when it gets hard like this I’m telling, not showing too, which is a great tip-off.

When I follow my own advice I have a story that flows a lot better. It’s usually fast-paced and more interesting (to me anyway). When I don’t follow my own advice I plod and poke my way through the writing. What I put down eventually gets cut out. I guess the lesson here is to heed my own advice sooner.

This very thing happened when I was writing the latest episode of ‘GalaxyBillies’. I hit a point where the story simply wasn’t moving. Then I realized that I could write all I wanted but it wasn’t really important. My listeners/readers would fill in any blanks I put in for scene breaks and it would be more interesting than anything I’d write. As soon as I did that, the story took off once more.

Personal Update

Back to waiting for responses on some of my submissions, but I’m definitely not standing still. I’m working on getting a couple extra episodes of ‘GalaxyBillies’ written so I have a cushion (no matter how small). I’ve also started another short story (I expect it to come in at about 2,500 words or so).

No rest for the wicked.


One comment

  1. Great post, I can’t wait to finish my current novel so I can go back and do this same thing. I’m really glad you wrote all this out, it’s great advice that I can’t wait to use! There are those scenes where I thought “well, the characters need to get from here to there, I’d better write it,” but those are all scenes I can cut, the reader will fill in the gap. I’ve got to lose this habbit of trying to write EVERYTHING that happens in the story down 🙂 I think my novel will end up being almost 90K words, which for a YA Sci-Fi, is probably too long. Hopefully I can cut and edit it down a great deal so it’s a fun fast read. Thanks Mike!

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