A little less conversation

I’ve recently had a breakthrough of sorts regarding my novel vN. Basically, it involved the need to cut a lot of material. One thing that always bothered me about the journey my main character Amy takes is that it was a bit too long, and didn’t go enough exciting places. More importantly, the exciting places that it did (and still does) go didn’t reveal enough of the world where she and I were spending so much of our time. There are some key locations in that world that I thought I just didn’t have the time to visit.

I was wrong.

It took a long time for me to realize how wrong I was. Fan-crafted, in-depth analysis of pop culture properties helped. Long after the novel was floating around in the company of editors and publishers, I discovered both the Plinkett reviews of Star Wars prequels and Reasoning with Vampires, a site for the careful reading and mocking of the Twilight series. Both are funny, and both are cruel. And as usual in the case of things that are both funny and cruel, they are also true. There are significant problems with both stories, and I think even dyed-in-the-wool fans understand that — real love, after all, means the knowledge and acceptance of certain flaws.

One of the bad storytelling habits that the Star Wars prequels and the Twilight novels share is narrative procrastination. The characters spend more time discussing what they are about to do than they do actually accomplishing it. To some extent this is true to life: weddings, races, and renovations all take more time to prepare for than to execute. But on the page, it feels like the characters are either getting in their own way, or simply too lazy or cowardly to get the job of the plot done.

Reading Salem’s Lot (or rather, having it read aloud to me), clinched this realization for me. The main characters spend more time deciding whether the vampires are real than they do actually hunting the things. Meanwhile, people are dying. It gets so bad that a twelve-year-old boy goes to deal with the problem while the grown men around him sit pondering the theological implications of the threat. It’s a heroic moment for little Mark Petrie, sure. But it means you love and respect Mark more than story’s alleged protagonist, and that’s a loss.

Mac Davis and Billy Strange said it best: “A little less conversation; a little more action.”

There’s already a lot of action in vN. A member of my workshop told me that she quickly started reading it from between her splayed fingers, like a child peeking at a scary movie. (This is not to say that vN is a “scary” novel. It’s not. But I’ve had a couple of non-workshop readers tell me they couldn’t make it past the prologue because the action was too intense for them. Another finished the novel in two days. One read it twice in two weeks.) But there’s a difference between that action, and the action of the plot. The plot was a lot harder for me to write. In my case, it meant cutting out a lot of the conversation.

Here is something I had to cut:

“Hey. What did you want to be, when your parents finally let you grow up?”

It was a strange question, coming from Javier, but it was one Amy had spent a lot of time thinking about before kindergarten graduation. The other kids always listed big, important jobs: firemen, famous people, doctors. But when Amy’s teacher asked her to draw her dream job, she simply drew herself drawing. Her teacher assumed Amy wanted to be an artist. No, Amy told her, those drawings within the drawing were blueprints. When her teacher asked what the blueprints were for, Amy had no real answer. Something big, she knew. Something special. It shamed her ways she could not yet explain that her grandmother had raised her family in unfinished basements. She thought of her mother down there in the dark and the dirt and a wave mighty and terrible enough to swallow all her fear and hurt and doubt crested within her.

“I wanted to build things,” Amy said. “I was never sure what. I must have re-built my dollhouse a hundred times. At Christmas, I spent two weeks planning a perfect treehouse. It even had running water.”

“Did you ever build it?”

“I didn’t even have a backyard.” She nudged his leg. “What about you?”

“What about me?”

“What did you want to be?”

He was silent for so long that Amy suspected he had drifted off to sleep. Then, he said, “I’m not sure I was little long enough to ever want to grow up.”

Now, I love this conversation. It tells you a lot about the main characters of the novel. But the problem is that it’s part of a much longer scene that shouldn’t even be there, because it violates the rules of the story. These people are on the run. They don’t have time for these talks. If they did, it would mean that the threats they’re running from aren’t terribly threatening. And that’s just a weakening of the story as whole. I could have included the scene, but I would have been doing it for my enjoyment, not the story’s benefit.

This isn’t to say that I won’t include it elsewhere. What Amy and Javier say here is still true for me. So you’ve either just seen some of the fat trimmed away on the butcher block, or you’ve gotten a little taste of what’s to come.

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