I received editorial feedback that two of my linked short stories would be better if combined and extended into a novel. Taking that feedback to heart, I began cranking out an average of ten pages a day over three weeks. And yes, the plot line was still intact, with plenty of room now for character development, sub-plot introduction, scene setting, musing, poetry, and other embellishments. But the pace flagged in places. How does one keep it up? In dismay, I wondered whether the original linked stories had better quality: short, sweet, and hitting the reader squarely between the eyes, leaving her gasping for more.
The shortest story I ever wrote comprised only ten words: “Nine months after the blackout in Toronto, he was born.” Perhaps, this was too short, even though I had captured love, intrigue, secrets, and left the reader with a pregnant question at the end. I had missed the factors that had led to the great power blackout in this world-class city (a bomb, perhaps, to add more intrigue?), a secret love affair that had led to this character’s birth? Why did his parents prefer to make love in the dark, were they even married, were they drunk during the act, where were they making love (in the park)? …oh, the lost opportunities!
Somewhere between my ten-word pot-boiler and a full-fledged novel lies the optimum length of story. How does a writer determine when enough is enough and when it is time to switch off the computer, when each story demands its own length and is not dictated by the whims and fancies of an editor or a magazine with a defined word count requirement?
Writing also comes in bursts of anxiety, like those pangs of mortality that strike us every time someone known to us dies. What if it’s me the next time? Gee, I’d better write it all down for my progeny before it’s too late. This anxiety drives us to write quantity, not necessarily quality.But the images and experiences that accumulate and get stored in the hard drive we call “memory” is a vast territory to be mined; it has its own time table for releasing information that combines with imagination to spill out onto the page. I am not even sure I can write it all down, at least, not in this lifetime. That is why “writer’s block” does not mean much to me, because the flow is circular and continuous, provided we do not force the pace. (N.B. Writer’s Block occurs when the writer and the editor inside us get into the driver’s seat at the same time and argue about who’s going to drive the bus – the subject of another blog post, perhaps...)
The rush to write may create its own excellence (by page six I am on a roll) but it certainly creates its own garbage as well (by page ten the writing is pretty much a regurgitation of an old tape somewhere; the clichés abound and the drama sags). I don’t think I will ever enter a three-day novel writing contest for that reason. When these anxious bursts of writing overtake me now, I let it all pour out, walk away and let the output marinade for awhile, then sift through the pages to find a few gems amidst the flotsam and trash the rest. The “trash” may re-form somewhere in my consciousness and reappear in the future in a more meaningful form that could be of use.
So, there we have it: knowing when enough is enough in a story and knowing how to extract the essence of a story and discard the rest, secure in the knowledge that like the venerable coconut tree no piece will go unutilized over time, are two of the many challenges facing the writer.