Following on from last week’s post, the second technique I tried out in writing my latest story might sound strange for someone trying to “embrace my inner pantser”. For the first time, I tried breaking my story down into sections with individual word count goals.
Divide and conquer
I was inspired to try this approach by one of my current favourite writing podcasts, Start With This, from the creators of Welcome to Night Vale.
Several times now, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor have described how, when they planned out the Night Vale novels, they assigned each chapter a desired word count and then divided up that number to assign each element within the chapter its own word count goal. In doing this, they took the daunting work of writing a 100,000-word novel and broke it down into a set of small, far less intimidating tasks.
As it happens, breaking big, overwhelming tasks down into smaller, more manageable steps is already a common recommendation for ADHD brains. So as soon as I heard about this idea I was interested. But the technique as implemented by the Night Vale creators entirely contradicts my current pantsing focus – I don’t want to spend that much time planning out my story structure in advance instead of getting on with writing it.
Luckily, I stumbled upon my own way to make use of it: in editing.
Too many words
The anthology I was writing for stipulated a word limit of 6,000. So inevitably, the first draft of my story came in closer to 8,000 words.
I always go over-limit on my first drafts, and figuring out where to wield the scalpel can be a torturous process. But this time, inspired by Start With This, I decided to try something new.
First I broke the story down into its component sections: not just scenes, but sub-sections within scenes, each of which felt to me like a separate element that had its own purpose in the story. For instance, a single scene might start off with a descriptive element setting up a new problem, move on to an action sequence where the protagonist tries to solve the problem, and finish with a cliffhanger as an even greater problem is revealed.
For each of these sections, I made a note of the current word count. Then I looked at the purpose of each section and how many words I was spending on it, and tried to identify sections that felt bloated. Finally I made a second list, this time of each section’s word count goal.
Finding shape in the clay
The Night Vale creators talk about how, with experience, you can get a feel for the right sort of word count for different kinds of story elements. Even though I don’t yet have that kind of experience, I think I have a decent sense of some basic “rules”: action sequences should be short and punchy, as should scene-setting and background information – to avoid info-dumping – while moments of reflection and character development, solo or in conversation, should be longer and more drawn-out to give the reader time to reflect in turn.
Starting out, my shortest section was 100 words and my longest section 1,200 words. After editing, the two longest sections remaining were each around 800 words.
Once I had made a commitment to reducing the sections that felt too long for what they meant to achieve, I found it much easier to get out the scalpel. I no longer felt like I was facing cutting 2,000 words out of my story – rather, I was cutting 50 words out of this section, 150 words out of that one.
More than that, having stopped to think about what each story element was there for, I found it far easier to identify which sentences and side-tracks least served that element’s purpose. I was able to cut with confidence, carving away the excess to better reveal the shape of my story.