This current prattle, though, assumed particular relevance for me as I prepare my current work in progress (AKA cherished child/baby/prodigy/work of genius, etc.) for the cold, hard world of querying… a task which makes sending one’s child off to school for the first time look like… well, like child’s play in comparison. My (theoretically) complete WIP clocks in at just over 178,000 words, and I was being uneasily reminded by Them i.e. self-proclaimed Grand Poohbahs of writing rules that, oh, agents insist on nothing above 100-120 thousand words for a debut novel. (This WIP isn’t technically my debut, having self-published some years ago, but we’ll not split literary hairs over the issue.) And frankly, I’d just like to point out that, given George R.R. Martin’s works routinely clock in somewhere north of a quarter of a million words, give or take, my little 178K tale seems charmingly compact in comparison. (Yes, but he’s famous and you’re… well… so not, that same halfwit I mentioned earlier says. To which I reply… well, never mind, because this reply is a lot less civil than my previous one.
In any event, I’m not so narcissistically in love with my own words that I can’t --- at least grudgingly, at times --- admit they could always do with a trim or six. In the brilliant 1984 film Amadeus, there’s a scene where no less a personage than the Emperor of Austria suggests Mozart cut a little from his famous opera The Abduction from the Seraglio. Never mind the fact that the Emperor is a musical idiot; Mozart’s incredulous reaction mirrors that of many self-righteous authors when told to cut their word count: “I don’t understand, Majesty… there are precisely as many notes as are required, neither more nor less.” Folks, don’t be a Mozart. There’s always room to cut some words. Especially since so many writers (including yours truly in his rare moments of honesty) do, or have at one time or another subscribed to what I have fancifully dubbed The Crane Doctrine, after the self-important but lovable psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane from the eponymous TV show: “If less is more, just think how much more more will be!” Yeah… nope. Don’t do it, folks. Don’t get sucked in by that little interior voice seductively whispering how much better that scene will be if you just add a little more exposition… or dialogue… or world-building.
So, what do we do? We follow my Rules of Writing. Don’t worry, it’s not a long list, because I roll my eyes at most of the lists famous writers have generated over the years. For example, Elmore Leonard had a long list of rules, some of which were… useful… others, just frankly loopy. Same with Stephen King. Steve famously has a hate-on for adverbs, despite the fact he’s been seen to use an adverb or six in his books. Like, guys, come on. Or the more anonymous rule that Everything Must Advance the Plot, Or It’s Out. That’s bull manure.
What are my writing rules, then? I have just two. (I used to have more, but I edited them down. Really.) The first is: Write the Best Damned Story You Can. Give it your all. Pour your heart and soul into it, and ask yourself: does the story flow like fine wine? Is it drinkable like same? (I once chastised a principal trying to dictate teaching methodology to me. I said I asked three questions of my teaching practices: were kids learning? Were they engaged? Were they enjoying the experience? If I could answer yes to all three, don’t tell me how to do this. The same, I think, can be said about writing, at least with the latter two questions --- maybe the first, come to that.)
The second rule is: write competently. You’re a writer, dammit, so make sure you’ve got the mechanics down. I see writers on social media who laugh sheepishly and say they can’t spell, or are hopeless at grammar or the physical construction of language, but it doesn’t matter, and once again, I call bullshit on that, folks. It does matter --- and spellcheckers and AI be damned. You’ve chosen your craft, now know it. Would you want your surgeon to say they’re no good at suturing? Your lawyer to say they’re no good at cross examining witnesses? Your fire fighter to say they just don’t have the hang of shooting high-pressure streams of water at raging conflagrations? (For the lesser lights out there, these are all rhetorical questions, by the way.)
Ultimately, if you can say with conviction that you have followed those two simple rules… don’t worry whether your story is good enough. You’ve done what you can. If others find it any good, and fortune is kind, it will, first, find someone willing to flog it to the publishing industry, and second, find an audience once it’s out in the world. Hopefully a large one. After all, we write for ourselves, because we have to --- well, except mindless hacks, anyway --- but I don’t know of any writers who write just for themselves. We write in isolation; we seek readers to share our tales with --- despite our fears of their irrational critical reactions, bless their black little readers’ hearts.
Oh, and that WIP of mine? I am editing it again… currently have it down by 5000 words, and counting. Agents will either like the story, or they won’t… but if they don’t, it won’t be because I’ve padded the thing and then refused to cut away the fat.
See you in the query trenches.