Writing Excuses 12.28: Trimming and Expanding
Key points: Revision! Specifically, taking something short and making it long, or taking something long and making it short (expanding and trimming). Novels expand easily, as you add extra scenes. Expanding: longer version of itself, changing genres, layering in a second theme or plot. You can expand at different points in the writing process, early in the development or later during revision. Sometimes adding a second theme/through line/plot can make a story work! To bring out a theme that is already there, but needs more emphasis: Mechanically, every page or paragraph, check that the thematic element is brought out. To turn a short story into a novel, instead of simply making the scenes longer, try looking at the backstory and starting the story earlier — then build to the climactic moment of the short story, and keep on going! Short story writers often have to learn to linger when writing long form. Readers bring different expectations to short and long forms: Long form is for the immersion, short form is a quick emotional punch in the gut. Cutting? Start by looking at cutting the beginning — first chapter, each scene? Often we are writing our way into the scene/story, and that bit is not needed. Kill your darlings, especially prose that calls attention to itself. Try the 10% solution — cut 10% everywhere to see what’s really important.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 28.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Trimming and Expanding.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Anne] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Mary Anne] I’m Mary Anne.
[Wesley] And I’m Wesley.
[Brandon] We are talking about revision. We’re going to talk about taking something short and making it long, which I’m very, very, very good at doing…
[Brandon] And taking something long and making it short, which I hear people do sometimes.
[Mary] Yeah. It is a thing. You do that, though.
[Brandon] I do that. I do that. But let’s talk… I personally feel that expanding is a little easier. Right? Like, not taking a short story and making a novel. But when my editor comes in, all my books get longer. He says, “Oh. Wouldn’t it be cool if…” And when you have a novel, you can be like, “Oh. It would be cool if we had this extra scene.” So in some cases, that’s easier.
[Mary] I think it depends on the writer.
[Brandon] Yeah. Yeah.
[Wesley] I think it depends on where you’re at in the writing process.
[Mary] Also true.
[Brandon] Yeah. Yeah, definitely. So expanding is… I guess all of them are a little bit different. There’s expanding something you have to a longer version of itself, and expanding something and taking it to a completely different genre. Right?
[Mary Anne] There’s also… So when I was in grad school, I remember at one point I brought in a story and it was, I think, a pretty straightforward story. It worked on some level from beginning to end. My advisor read it, and she said, “Well, this is fine. But what I’d like you to work on is layering in a second theme that runs through the entire story from beginning to end.” I think that was a real turning point in my writing, when I realized that a story can do more than one thing, and have multiple things, multiple issues that are kind of playing against each other. Now, I would say, they typically have three or four things playing against each other through the entire story.
[Wesley] So was that hard for you, or…
[Mary Anne] It was some… No. Now it is pretty straightforward. But I… Like, it hadn’t occurred to me. Up until that point.
[Mary] I think that’s something that a lot of writers wind up doing in the development process of the story. As you get further in, that… This is one of the things we talk about when we’re saying combine two ideas to make one story, because the intersection of those themes are where the surprises come. Otherwise what… When you make a promise, you’re going to fulfill that promise. So if you only have one story line going through, it’s fairly dull. Which is why, if you can learn to add in something like… If you finish a story and it’s like, “Eh. This story doesn’t really do anything.” Learning to add in that second through line is tricky, but I have done that with some stories that weren’t firing.
[Brandon] So let’s talk about this idea more. Taking something… You’re writing a short story, you add something to it. Or a novel, you add something to it. We’ll talk about taking a short story and turning it into a novel or a novella later on. But have any of you… Either of you…
[Mary Anne] I can give you an example, right. So for a story that I published in Asimov’s this past summer called Webs. The main through line is about… I sort of wanted to talk about race conflict through the lens of aliens, etc. so the main conflict are these people who are coming and fleeing a riot and take refuge with a neighbor who… And the neighbor has to decide whether to shelter them or not at the risk of their own life. So that’s a pretty straightforward plot. I added into that a secondary thread, which is that this neighbor… I kind of want to think about well, why would she be perhaps reluctant to shelter these people? Added in a transgender actual thread where the sort of genetic modification that was putting them at risk was sort of something that also put her at risk in a different way. Something that had caused resentment between them in the past. So it complicated everyone’s motivations, and made, I think, a much stronger story.
[Mary] The mechanical way that I’ve handled doing something like that when I’m going back into add something… A lot of times, that theme is already in the bones of the story. It’s just bringing it out and making sure that it’s present through the whole thing. So what I’ll do mechanically is all go through and look on each page… And sometimes I look on a paragraph by paragraph level. But basically, every 250 words, I checked to make sure that there is something about that thematic element that is occurring. If it’s not, then I look at my point of view character and think, “Okay. What is it about this scene that can trigger a thought for them?” Sometimes that involves adding an action, sometimes it involves giving them a different set of thoughts, internal reactions to something. But I find that that’s one way to add something in, and a lot of times this doesn’t take a lot of effort. It’s like one sentence here, one sentence there. Sometimes it’s a full paragraph, but it’s usually something that can be done much easier than you think it can going into it.
[Wesley] So, the question then, is, like, there’s different kinds of expansion. So it seems that were talking a lot about, like, okay, we have a story here. We want to expand it by, let’s say, if we’re doing a murder mystery, we’re lacing in clues along the way of the story. Or, let’s say, for me, I primarily expand at the beginning of an idea. Man can walk through walls. Okay. And he’s also a sex fiend. So…
[Wesley] I take the idea and then I will write three chapters of it. That’s kind of like the way I get to know the character, I get to know the narrative voice. Then, after I have the bones of it, then I will expand it into… That particular three chapters usually becomes the first nine chapters of a book.
[Brandon] Okay. So. Moving on that topic, have you ever taken a short story that you’ve finished, and said, “I want to write a novel based on this.”
[Wesley] I’m not going to lie. I have never written a short story in my life.
[Brandon] Oh. Okay.
[Mary] All of my published novels are, in fact, originally short stories. Well. Shades of Milk and Honey was originally a short story. It was flash fiction, actually.
[Brandon] Was it?
[Mary] Yeah. It was.
[Brandon] Oh, I remember you telling me about this, now. Yeah.
[Mary] Yeah, the first chapter… First scene of the first chapter is basically the first short story. Then, Ghost Talkers was the back story for a short story. Then…
[Brandon] Your current project, obviously.
[Mary] Currently, project Calculating Stars and Faded Sky are both, again, back story for Lady Astronaut of Mars. Which is actually a thing that I picked up from Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, when he talked about how to expand a short story into novel length. He’s like, “It’s very tempting to try to unpack all of the scenes and make the scenes longer,” and while you do have to do that to a certain degree, because readers expect a different type of experience from a novel scene than a story scene, he suggested actually reaching into the character’s back story and doing the thing that we are always told to not do, but starting the story earlier, leading up to that pivotal climactic moment. Which I thought… Which has worked for me, very well. It also allows you to do some of the things that Mary Anne was talking about, which is to layer different thematic elements. Which then gives you stuff so that after you hit that climactic scene, which was the original short story, you have additional things to unpack and explore.
[Brandon] I know this was very difficult for Eric James Stone, who’s a frequent guest on the podcast. His first novel came out last year and it was… I was in his writing group while he was trying to expand this from short story length to novel length. As a very natural short story writer, he kept cutting scenes. Every single one of them way too quickly. For a novel, we were like, “Wait. We want to know… Like give us some emotional payoff here. Give us a little bit of time with the character at the start.” It was like a sequence of really fast glimpses of this character, which each of them were brilliant on their own, but it took a lot of work for him to learn how to linger a little bit.
[Wesley] I wonder if that’s just… Like it depends on where you start as a writer. If you start as a short story writer, you have these natural tendencies to be a bit more concise, to be more single plot…
[Mary Anne] I actually started as a poet.
[Wesley] Oh, right.
[Mary Anne] So even getting to short stories took me a while.
[Brandon] How did you do that?
[Mary Anne] I mean, I wrote poetry for two… When I started writing short stories, the first year I wrote, they were all about a thousand words long. I’ve published most of them because it’s actually easy to place short stories that are that short, but…
[Brandon] Yeah. Magazines love them.
[Mary Anne] But it limits what you can do. I mean…
[Wesley] You started off as a novelist, right, Brandon?
[Brandon] I did start as a novelist.
[Wesley] You started big and…
[Brandon] So I… I am a big believer in the adage write what you know. Doesn’t necessarily mean don’t write about dragons because you’ve never seen dragons. But I feel that an author is often best… Not 100%, but often best when they’re in a genre they have read and they know the discussion that’s happening there. And they know the… They just instinctively know the tools of that genre. I had not read a lot of short stories back in the day, and I had read a lot of novels. It’s what I wanted to do. So I started into that, back when it was considered a bad move. It was during the transition point. For a long time in science fiction and fantasy, writing short fiction was considered the way to break in. You trained on this, and then you got a novel if your short stories were good. During my era, that shifted as the short story market started to shrink, and the novel market started to expand. But that’s a market thing. Let’s move off of that. Mary, you were going to add something?
[Mary] One of the… As you were talking, one of the things that occurred to me was I have a novel that was… It was originally a novel. Then I trimmed it down to a novella, which is… Was then… It’s called Kiss Me Twice, and it was nominated for a Hugo.
[Brandon?] It’s very good. I like it.
[Mary] Thank you. Then I… I then decided to unpack it, and turn it back into a novel, but I had made discoveries, so just going back to the original novel wasn’t going to work. But one of the things that happened for me in that process was when I was having beta readers read it, they would hit scenes that had been in the original novella and have all of these questions that didn’t come up when it was in straight up novella form.
[Brandon] Right. Because the expectations…
[Mary] Because the expectations were different. What I realized through that was that the primary difference between short fiction and long fiction in terms of how you should approach it is not about oh, what does this form do, what does that form do? But it’s about audience expectation. So, from what I can tell, novel readers are reading for the immersion. Short story and novella… Short form readers are reading for kind of a quick emotional punch in the gut. The way I describe it is the difference between watching the Olympics, where you watch the road to the Olympics, you watch all of the different competitors even if you’re rooting for one particular person in one particular category. Then you watch the gymnast go out and they do their flippy flippy, they go off the stage…
[Wesley] The flippy flippy, guys. The flippy flippy.
[Mary] I am all about the technical terms. They go off the stage, they hug their coach, you wait for their scores, there is the medal ceremony. Then you have the dénouement of the exit interview. That’s a novel. You have watched the Olympics. A short story is the YouTube clip of the flippy flippy. You want that to start right before the flippy flippy begins… I’m just going to keep using that phrase. Then, the moment the gymnast sticks the landing, you’re out. This isn’t to say that a short story must be a single emotional thread, because you’ve seen the YouTube clip where the gymnast goes out and they do their routine and they fall, and you’re like, “Nooo!” Then they get up and they keep going and you’re like, “Oh, it’s so beautiful, look at them succeed.”
[Mary] This is… But it is about that swift emotional punch. So when you’re talking about expanding a novel versus expanding a short story, you’re talking about filling different audience needs.
[Mary Anne] I think it’s interesting, because I think I’ve never done this. Like, when you talk about taking a short story and turning it into a novel, that is not my natural impulse. What I tend to do is write additional related pieces in the same universe. So…
[Brandon] Well, that is what Mary’s done for most of her novels from a short story.
[Wesley] I am a firm believer that anything can be made into a novel.
[Brandon] But I need to cut this here, because we need to do our book of the week. Which is Plea by Mary Anne.
[Mary Anne] Okay. So Plea is…
[Brandon] Actually a short story, right?
[Mary Anne] It’s a short story. And it is part of a series. It starts with The Stars Change which is my novella. Then there is Communion, Webs, and Plea, which all came out in the last couple of years. I’m going to just read you a bit of a review of Plea, because it’s awkward talking about your own work. This is from Cabbages and Kings podcast. “The story shows a family waiting in line, which might not seem that compelling a premise. But they’re trying to escape a growing violence against people like them, people who have been genetically modified to live better with their situation. The violence coming from people who are intolerant of this, who see them as having unfair advantages, who want to make humanity more human again, like that’s an actual thing. They’re trying to emigrate to avoid the violence threatening them. The two mothers, Gwen and Rose, have to make a heartbreaking decision in the face of what those they are trying to seek protection with decide about their case. So it’s a story about emigration that is heavy and difficult and reveals that resistance can mean leaving a dangerous system behind, and can also mean not being able to.” I’ll stop there.
[Brandon] That sounds awesome. Where can they find it?
[Mary Anne] That is at Lightspeed.
[Brandon] Excellent. All right. I left us, appropriately, about three minutes to talk about cutting.
[Brandon] The conversation was going very well. So let’s trim down our advice on how to cut something.
[Mary Anne] I have one thing which…
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Mary Anne] My students consistently start the story too early. I really… Almost all of them could start five pages later, seven, nine pages… I mean, I know this is like hackneyed advice, but it is true.
[Brandon] No, it’s good.
[Wesley] No, it’s not hackneyed advice.
[Brandon] You can usually cut the first chapter of a novel.
[Mary] I will say, in short fiction, just as an exercise, try cutting your first paragraph and your last paragraph. Of each scene. It’s… I wouldn’t do it for everything, but it’s… A lot of times, when you’re an early writer, you are finding the scene, and that first bit is just you writing your way into it.
[Wesley] I mean, 90% of the time, I write a first chapter, then I write the whole book. I almost inevitably rewrite the whole first chapter, because that chapter, that’s the one where you’re most muddled, where you’re still kind of finding your feet about the story.
[Brandon] I’m doing that right now with my current project. I’ve tossed out the first chapter 3 times. Most everything else is working…
[Wesley] I hate first chapters, they’re the worst.
[Brandon] But that one…
[Mary Anne] I would add…
[Mary] I don’t do that. I don’t know why.
[Mary Anne] I would just add cutting on a different level. I do have to go through and kill my darlings, in the sense of cutting those lines that are almost too poetic. I think this may be because I come from a poetry background, is that I will have this temptation to put in this beautiful line, but it ends up carrying so much weight compared to the rest of the text, and we’ve talked about sort of windowpane prose, that it draws attention to itself and then it distracts from the story. So I end up often having to cut those.
[Brandon] I’ve shared this before, but the famous thing Moshe wrote on my first manuscript, “Brandon, you can’t be Gene Wolfe for one sentence.”
[Mary Anne] Exactly.
[Brandon] That… I mean, they stick out like a sore thumb, sometimes. For me, trimming is actually… Is a reversal of what I said earlier. This is what I spend most of my time doing in revision. I don’t need to expand. I expand naturally. I have to learn to cut. One of the most educating parts of my career was when I was told by my publisher early on, “This needs to go down by about 10%.” So I took that literally, and I said, “Every chapter is going down 10% exactly by word.”
[Brandon] Learning to cut line-by-line, paragraph by paragraph, ask yourself, “Have I repeated this concept? Do I need all of these words?” is one of the most useful things I think a writer can learn, particularly of my style of writer. Who hasn’t spent a lot of time in the short form.
[Mary] I will tell you that I did that when I was early career, and it’s something that I recommend to my students. Again, as an exercise, this is not… A lot of times, people will hear the 10% Solution, which is actually a good book, and go and feel like that is something that every writer must do at all times. That is definitely not true. But if you are a writer that is early career, and you are still trying to figure out what is important, the 10%, just going through and mechanically cutting 10% is really useful training.
[Brandon] You learn so much. Nowadays, when I do it, I keep track just to see, when I do my revision. I usually cut 5%. Right? I don’t get to the full 10, naturally.
[Mary] No, because one of the things that happens is that you… By doing this, you start to train yourself to not write that stuff in the first place.
[Brandon] All right. We are going to stop for some homework, which is going to teach you to do this. Mary, you were going to?
[Mary] Right. So, this is a very brutal solution to cutting. This is when you’ve got something that you know is bloated. Like, your readers have gone, “I’m getting really drowsy here.” Or “This goes on too long, it’s a giant infodump.” Take a look at it. Examine how many concepts are in that, that the story will completely break if they aren’t there. So let’s say that it’s… That the onions must be sliced thinly, that your main character is wearing red, and there’s a bowl of kimchi on the table. Those are the three concepts. You should be able to convey those three concepts in just three sentences, but you’re using 11 sentences. So, trim that down to get it to three sentences. It’s not that each concept must be in its own sentence, but you’re not allowed anymore than three sentences.
[Wesley] Okay. I’m going to add to that. Go the opposite direction and say “The onions must be sliced thinly.” Figure out how to expand that, without actually saying “The onions must be sliced thinly,” and see what you can kind of expand out to, and kind of discover as you write around it.
[Brandon] Great. So there’s your homework, guys. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses, now go write.