I was visiting my mom the other night and was reminded of an important lesson for fiction writers.
Mom reads a lot of fiction—mostly mysteries—and during this visit she held up a book by her favorite author and said, “Do you know why she’s my favorite author?”
I was ready to offer up suggestions such as characterization, plot, suspense or any number of other possible answers. But Mom’s response was surprising. She said, “I like this author because her chapters are short.”
I looked at the book and, sure enough, there more than 60 chapters in a 300+ page book. I got out the calculator and determined that each chapter averages five pages in length. Some, of course, are shorter and some are longer.
Mom went on, ”She doesn’t write the stuff I don’t want to read about.” I took that as confirmation of novelist Elmore Leonard’s response to an interviewer’s question about why he was such a popular author. He replied, “Because I leave out all the stuff readers skip over in other authors’ books.”
Many of the manuscripts I see suffer from this malady: they plod on and on with unnecessary words and even paragraphs. One key in becoming a good writer is knowing what to leave out in the first place and, having not done that, knowing what to cut when you do your self-editing. Cutting should be a major part of your second and third draft efforts. An artist friend of mine tells me that the key to good visual art (oils, watercolors, etc.) is knowing what to leave out. That’s true of fiction (and non-fiction) too. Many aspiring authors have not yet learned that part of the craft.
Years ago I read an article in Writer’s Digest wherein the writer was commenting on a Star Trek script that had two or three manuscript pages describing an effort to turn the Enterprise around. The author said he simply took a red pen and Xed out those pages and substituted the words, “Reverse course,” yelled Captain Kirk.
One author I’m proud to have acquired and edited is Brandt Dodson. Brandt is a master at short, clean chapters. His first novel, Original Sin, had 274 pages and 63 chapters. That’s barely four pages per chapter. Chapter 58 is less than a page. Order Brandt’s book (it’s on Kindle too) and read what I mean.
Then, on the next draft of your WIP, I want you to look closely for places to cut. And that unsold manuscript in your desk drawer? Pull it out and see if cutting it doesn’t make it better. Then send it out again.
Less is more. Remember that.