Analysis and Surgery

5 Mar
Stories within stories, wheels within wheels

Stories within stories, wheels within wheels

I just finished editing a neat little short story. The setting is pretty bizarre (shocking, right?), but the underlying emotional content is supposed to be real. It is an element of craft that I find very attractive. How would real characters react when faced with the unusual, fantastic, or supernatural? And more importantly, how can I convey their very real inner lives? It’s the kind of thing I’ve been working on/with since before I ever heard the words ‘slipstream’ or ‘magical realism.’

The first (revised) draft weighed in at just under 3,000 words. Not bad. I was worried about how the story was balanced and paced, so I did something I almost never do: I analyzed my work. Determined to chop it apart – to vivisect, if you will – I broke out the excel spreadsheet. I hacked the text into bits and made notes on what happened in each scene, how many words were in that scene, and where in the story it took place. Then I rendered two graphs, which looked like this:

 

the progression of the word count

the progression of the word count

the word count in each scene

the word count in each scene

It’s not terribly instructive, really, but it gives me a rough idea of structure. And the visualization makes me happy. I can see pretty clearly how the story builds, and what I placed the most emphasis on. If there is too much in one scene/section, but another seems slight, maybe I ought to dive in and carve it up.

Then I had a thought: What if I excised ALL of the fantastical elements? So I did. The work was simple, but time-consuming. Every sentence (or part of thereof) that referred to or described something out of the ordinary fell under my cruel editor’s knife. Here is an example, from early in the story. This scene:

            Five days before, just after midnight, he and Heather had stood in a crowd next to those swings as the giant alien spaceship had moved towards the city. The disk had slid into view from the south, having just destroyed Los Angeles. A million tiny, yellow and white lights illuminated its hull, and it filled the sky like some kind of imported constellation. Pete had wrapped his arm around Heather’s shoulders. Her skin was cold, even though the warm night air felt humid and still. She had pulled away from him, and they watched as the enormous starship stopped in the sky. It shook, fell apart, and the pieces began to rain down to the earth below. None of them knew why or how it had been destroyed, but any relief they felt turned sour as hundreds of tiny fireballs began to hit the ground.

After chopping out any references, it became this scene:

            Five days before, just after midnight, he and Heather had stood next to those swings. A million tiny, yellow and white lights filled the sky. Pete had wrapped his arm around Heather’s shoulders. Her skin was cold, even though the warm night air felt humid and still. She had pulled away from him and the stars stopped in the sky.

The story is essentially about a guy who gets dumped by his girlfriend, because he’s been an ass. The setting happens to be during some strange, alien invasion, apocalyptic events. By chopping out the ‘weird’ stuff, I was able to look at the meat of the story, without any fancy bits – sometimes in the middle of a sentence. In all, I only put in two new words, and I cut out a thousand. That told me that only a third of my story was about crazy stuff. I dug into it again.

This time, I took on Pete’s smoking. Cigarettes are fucking terrible, but they can be very useful props for characters to interact with. After cutting out the cigarettes and all references to them, I had ditched another three hundred words. I was pleased. My story was lean and smooth, but I didn’t enjoy it so much.

I put the crazy/end of the world/alien invasion business right back where it belonged. And then I reworked the start of the tale. Like I said, it’s not hard work, but it does eat up a lot of time. My final draft, after one more edit is right about 2,700 words. It’s not perfect, maybe, but it might be as good as it gets.

What have I learned? That is a damn good question. I think I need to take a more critical look at my assumptions about my work. I will definitely use this graph/analysis technique again. And if I have the time, I will absolutely rip apart my living story and perform home surgery on whatever seems out of place. It makes me feel a bit like a mad scientist, to be honest. I’m building these little monsters, and I want to do my best. I am sure I’m not the first or last to tread this path, but it seems like a good direction to go.

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