Potatoes and Molasses

Let us first enjoy one of the more delightful musical productions of the 21st century:

And now let us speak of narrative craft.

Over the past several months I wrote my first novel, completing it on December 14th, just a couple of weeks off my projected schedule. Right now the manuscript is languishing in a drawer (and on about 19 backup USB drives), and I’ll revisit it when I can look at the story with relatively fresh eyes.

In terms of composition, perhaps the most useful thing I did was allow myself to Draft Deliciously, by which I mean self-indulgently, quieting the inner editor who would prefer that I pause and hammer at every word choice and syntactic gesture until I’m convinced that I have it more or less right. You can see a good example in that last sentence: the existence of “thing I did” offends me, but it’s better to get the essential idea down and move along than to sit staring at the screen for five minutes trying to decide if “strategy I adopted” or “element of my approach” will appease my authorial superego, who’s kind of an ass.

What that means, practically speaking, is that my first editorial run will involve more cornstarch than anything else. And cornstarch, in this context, is all-purpose thickener, any additive one might use when the gravy is a little bit too watery. (You know what else you can use as an all-purpose thickener? Instant mashed potatoes. See how I brought that around? They hand out doctorates for that.) For instance, in plenty of places I signal the tone of a moment with a simple expression or gesture: the word “smiled” appears 83 times total in my novel, alongside 26 occurrences of “grinned.” (To my credit, characters only “beamed” twice.) It’s a long document, about 117,000 words in the Delicious Draft version, but those sorts of cues always seem lazy to me. When I go back in for the first edit I’ll do my best to signal emotion with contextual cues to indicate fitting feelz. Instead of “Cordelia smiled,” you’ll get “Cordelia splashed a little Irish cream in her hot cocoa, stirring it in and appreciating the delicate clink of the spoon against the sides of her mug.” I won’t dispense with “smiled” entirely, of course, but I’ll try to use it more sparingly if I’m able to convey the tenor of a scene without leaning on it as a placeholder.

You can probably see the problem with that approach: the manuscript is already overlong, and adding cornstarch and/or instant potatoes will add a couple thousand more words. I’m actually fine with that–but the risk involved is that I’ll bog the novel down with gestures of that kind, the molasses I prophesied back in the header. I don’t have an easy answer for addressing those excesses at this point, and I know already (based on notes to myself I’ve jotted down over the past two weeks) that I’ve got to add a little content here and there for clarity. Plus it’s a horror novel, so I’ll be splashing a few buckets of blood on certain scenes as well. The standard length of a horror/dark fantasy novel (he said, reaching out from a landslide of asterisks) is about 75,000-100,000 words, so I’ve got more than a little work in front of me.

I know that the last run of revisions will find me giving my superego free rein as I Edit Ascetically. With luck that more murderous version of your friendly neighborhood bald man will be vicious enough to whittle the manuscript down into fighting trim. In general I have a healthy mistrust of Future Me, who has historically been fairly unreliable, but I have reason to believe I can at least depend on that guy to be an unrepentant jerk.

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