Fleshing out the bone

dragon engraving

If it really is a good idea to be average, what do you do when your book is the wrong length?

From working as an editor as well as a writer, my impression is that most writers have problems with being too wordy rather than writing drafts that are too short. What’s your experience as a writer?

My books are never too short. I’ve got whole systems for reducing flabby, waffle-y first drafts to a reasonable size (I’ll be blogging about this on my general author site), but I’ve never needed to ponder the problem of a book that was too short… until The Bone Dragon.

It’s baffling. The idea is a great big enormous one: definitely an idea that deserves a full novel. And yet my first draft was a measly 50,000 words. In finished form, it’s still shy of 70K. Where did all the words go? Are they hiding behind each other? Bunched up in terror of my red pen? I keep hitting ‘word count’ and still the numbers remain the same. How can this be?

Editing my way through the first draft, I kept my eyes peeled for where I’d somehow missed out 50 pages’ worth of plot. But there weren’t any notes in place of whole scenes yet to be written: not a [[ ******** add scene about Jane and Uncle Ben here *********]] in sight. On the positive side, it was my best ever first draft. Everything in it needed to be there. The plot was tight, and I’d got just the right number of major and minor characters (a major plus since I have a tendency to over-populate my books with unnecessary characters).

One key thing stood out as I pondered my word count conundrum: people weren’t going be more inclined to enjoy the book if I set about shoe-horning in unneeded material simply to make it longer.  And yet agents and publishers would probably turn their noses up at a 50K novel.

After much tea and chocolate and squishing of my cat (is purring not the most wonderful invention ever?), I took a deep breath and sent the manuscript off to my handful of ‘first readers’: colleagues, fellow writers and literary-minded friends who are willing to be honest but kind about my work.

Worries over the length aside, I was anxious that I’d written a book that was ‘just for me’. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but it is important to know when you’ve got a book that you should keep to yourself to be enjoyed by the light of your bedside lamp alone. Some books really shouldn’t see the wider light of day. I try to be honest with myself about work that falls into this category, but I really didn’t know about The Bone Dragon, so I asked my first readers two key questions:

  1. Do you like it? Will other people like it?
  2. Do you feel anything is missing or not fully fleshed out?

I got my answers surprisingly quickly (I’m sure the length helped!). The answer to question 1 was a surprising ‘yes’ all round. I’d been sure at least one of my first readers would hate it and another just wouldn’t get it, but that wasn’t how it played out. So far so good.

Even better, rather than just saying nice, generic things (almost always a sign that people don’t actually like what you’ve shown them but don’t want to say so) my lovely first readers had very strong opinions about aspects of the book that weren’t clear and, best of all, things they wanted to hear more about! Oh frabjous day!

One of my first reader’s main pieces of feedback was that, as a woman, I occasionally missed the mark about the psychology of my male characters. The emotional landscape rang true, he said, but my male characters’ attitudes to problem-solving sometimes didn’t. “Men try to fix things. Often in practical ways. Even when they shouldn’t,” he told me. This led on to a whole series of new scenes in which one of the characters tries to fix things on a purely practical level; this, in turn, creates a series of conflicts with another character… and disrupts the plans of a third. So the comment helped with characterisation, building conflict, complicating the plot and with my word count!

Buoyed up by my first readers being in agreement that the book would appeal to readers, I put on my editor’s hat and started asking myself all the standard tough questions. The ones I kept coming back to were all about the links between plot and character. It all boils down to this question: does each character have an arc?

… though begs a further set of questions:

  1. Is each character defined and unique?
  2. Does each character have a goal?
  3. Do all the characters change over the course of the book?

Even though I didn’t have too many characters, two weren’t suitably defined. Simply put, it was easy to mix them up. Both had a similar role to play in the book. Both had similar attributes. Both had a similar relationship with the protagonist. Neither changed profoundly. Not good enough.

I knew either one character had to be scrapped or something needed to be done to ensure that each character added something different to the book. Critically, each character had to change and develop, whether internally or in terms of their relationships with other characters… and, if possible, this development needed to be triggered by some sort of conflict. Now, I don’t mean that I thought I had to create conflict between the characters necessarily, but I had to ensure that they were somehow conflicted.

So that’s what I did. My pitiful 50K draft expanded to a satisfactory 68K. I had hoped to push the word count over the magic 70K mark… but I just couldn’t find another 2000 words that needed to be in the novel.

I still can’t see where I’ve skimped. All the characters have their own arcs now – some bigger and some smaller – but all of them develop or change in some way. There’s conflict of sorts in all the relationships. There’s lots of drama. There are clues to the mysteries that the story revolves around, and red herrings and revelations too. There’s a climax and even a resolution.

But before I considered the book finished, I sent it back to my first readers… and the consensus was that the manuscript felt complete: “It seems like it’s now in final form,” said a friend who works in the publishing industry.

Working on The Bone Dragon has inverted a lot of what I know about writing books. Maybe being upside down for a while will do me some good. Perhaps, in the long run, having written a book that’s too short I’ll miraculously move forwards writing tight, waffle-less first drafts from now on.

Well, there’s always hope, right?