Greetings from Geekdom! If you’re not one of us but you have geeks in your life, you may have noticed that we’re a bit scarce these days. There’s an easy explanation: We geeks have been forced to up our game, reading-wise. Many of us have been trying to get caught up before tomorrow. Allow me to explain.
In a trying and often-brutal year like 2020, one of the few sources of solace for readers of adult epic fantasy has been a plethora of solid new editions to wonderful series-in-progress. We’ve been feasting on releases from the likes of Evan Winter, Jenn Lyons, and Joe Abercrombie, to name a few. But tomorrow comes the motherlode, when two more giants of the genre drop: The Burning God from R.F. Kuang, and Rhythm of War from Brandon Sanderson.
That’s 1,872 new pages of expansive storytelling, just from those two alone! Now do you see why we’ve been scarce? (Well, the lots to read thing, and then there’s the whole global pandemic thing. Still…)
I’ve written about my love of expansive storytelling and its benefits before. In fact it was three years ago on this same third Monday of November, the day before the last release of an edition of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives. I was prompted to revisit the topic by a couple of things. Most recently, and most coincidentally, by Kathryn Craft’s post here at WU last Thursday. If you haven’t read it, you should. Kathryn’s posts are always great, and she’s a wonderful teacher. If you ever have the chance to attend one of her conference sessions (remember those?), don’t hesitate.
The piece is full of excellent advice for trimming excess in a manuscript, but in the course of offering it she said something that caught my attention: “If a reader can understand the story without one of its scenes, it isn’t needed.”
As much as I admire Kathryn and the piece, the more I thought about that one sentence, the more firmly it became lodged in my craw.
To Be Fair…
I suppose it comes down to one’s definition of the word needed as it relates to story. Or rather, the importance one places on what’s needed (versus wanted or desired) from a story. The first thing that popped in my head in response was something like: “If Van Halen fans can better understand Diamond Dave’s lyrics without Eddie’s guitar solos, they aren’t needed.”
I quickly realized that songwriting is too dissimilar to provide a solid counterpoint to a storytelling tenet. Which sent my mind scrambling for storytelling examples, and The Mandalorian sprang to mind (hey, I’m writing this on a Friday, and it’s one of the few shows I actually look forward to). If the overarching story is about Mando getting the Child home, did we really need the awesome fight with the spiders to save the frog-lady’s baby-eggs in S2, E2?
Again, I rejected Mando on the grounds that episodic television is probably an unfair counterpoint, as well. I’ll bet those of you who’ve read even a few of my columns here can guess what next popped into this geeky noggin. You guessed it: LOTR. As in: if the story can be understood to be Frodo and Sam getting the ring to Mt. Doom, and then getting home again (and how that epic experience changes them), do we really need the dozens of scenes that culminate in The Battle of the Pelennor Fields? (Setting aside the visit to the House of Tom Bombadil, of course—even I still wonder if that was truly needed.)
To be fair, I believe that many—if not most—manuscripts do indeed need tightening. I concede that there are a great many unneeded scenes, and many stories would be made better by their cutting. I also think that concision and a taut narrative serve some genres even more than others (thrillers in particular come to mind).
And also, to be fair, Kathryn’s definitive tenet struck at the heart of a longstanding issue of mine. In other words, I had a chip on my shoulder. For me, this wasn’t solely about concision or a question of what is actually excessive to story. For me, her essay also begs questions like:
•How long is too long?
•How much should length matter?
•Is shorter always better?
•To whom does length really matter?
Regarding that last question, I’m sure many would answer without hesitation that it matters to readers. But the hoopla (and good sales numbers) for the adult fantasies I mention at the top would suggest that’s an oversimplification. Anyone who’s spent any time researching the submissions process for traditional publication knows that there’s a lot of talk about size, including guidelines that some present as being set in stone. But the routine appearance of traditionally-published long books would suggest those are oversimplifying, as well.
Oversimplified or not, for most unpublished writers, size matters. In my case, to an extent that became not just a nuisance but a hindrance to my storytelling.
As you already know or have by now guessed, I love big books and I cannot lie. (Ahem. Sorry for the earworm.) Seriously, in the spirit of truthfulness, I must confess: Throughout my writing journey, I have struggled with wordiness in my prose (you haven’t noticed, have you?). But in spite of that ongoing battle, wordiness is not what I’m discussing here. I’m talking about length as it pertains to what I’ve termed expansive storytelling.
And few would argue that expansive storytelling includes scenes that aren’t necessary to the reader’s understanding of the story. I’m talking about scenes that enhance the complexity of the world-building; that deepen our understanding of backstory; that explore nuance in character relationships; that follow the divergent paths of secondary characters and plots; that reveal the motives and mindsets of protagonists and antagonists alike.
Deciding What Really Matters
As I said, over the years my fret over word-count was often a hindrance. It’s a worry I’ve mostly left behind. I can honestly say that in my fifteen-plus years of writing, some of my biggest regrets have been born of following advice intended to cut/trim/streamline my storytelling. I’ve cut not just scenes, but complete story elements and side-plots. The advice was always well-meaning, and from smart people whom I trusted then and still do. I willingly took it—eyes wide open. For example: my first trilogy’s story-arc was about two brothers—one raised inside of the Roman Empire, the other among their people (the Goths), and the conflicts that arose from it. In the name of cutting and streamlining, I actually removed one of the two brothers—a major POV character—from the entire first book of the trilogy. Sure, the move cut tens of thousands of words, but it also completely transformed the dynamic from my original intention, instigating years of revision work.
One of the things that assures me that I’ve grown as a writer is that in my most recent completed project, I ended up adding almost 30K words to book one of my second trilogy (also with the guidance of a couple of very smart and story-savvy mentors). I did this without spending a moment fretting over that little number in the lower left corner of my screen. I’m certain the story is better for it. I’m also sure the story could’ve been understood without the additions.
The regrets I mentioned were all due to things done in the service of getting a traditional publishing deal. I suppose I’ve decided that staying true to my story matters more than the means of its publication.
Your Cautionary Geek
I understand that my decision is not right for everyone. That this is not a ‘one size fits all’ proposition is sort of the point, after all. I also understand that artistic compromises should, and often must, be made. I get that we writers are often naïve, and that we need guidance—not to mention that the pros who work in publishing provide excellent guidance, for the most part. But I’m writing this essay because I wish I’d read something like it a decade ago.
As they say on Twitter, I don’t know who needs to hear this, but you get to decide how long your story needs to be.
You get to decide what scenes/story-elements/characters it needs, and why it needs them (or why readers should read them).
You can, and should, trust your gut when deciding what advice to take. And though you should always use your head as well, you should question its motives (is the ego at the wheel?).
Yes, you do have a lot to learn (we all do), but do not confuse wordiness with meaningful story-length or breadth. Only you can completely grasp your story’s ultimate intentions.
Know that there are those of us—a great many of us—who LOVE big books; who revel in wandering expansive worlds, viewing them from myriad perspectives; who adore referring to maps and character lists and glossaries. Lots of us love immersing ourselves in complex tales that bear little resemblance to a tautly-told stand-alone, even if we love those, too.
Even if it sometimes doesn’t feel like it, there’s room for expansive storytellers at the literary table. Even if some prefer to ignore us, we cannot be relegated to the kids table!
If all of Geekdom can be held in breathless anticipation of a Stormlight Archives book four that weighs in at damn-near a half-a-million words, who’s to say that your story needs to be held to any certain length?
As your cautionary geek, I hereby release you to read, write, and rejoice in expansive storytelling.
Phew, long post, right? Surprised? No? Since you made it through, has monitoring the length of a manuscript ever felt like a hindrance? Don’t lie—do you like big books? If so, this other brother won’t deny.