Underpopulated

Wednesday March 09, 2011 @ 09:59 PM (UTC)

My dear friend Jeannine, a speculative poet of great talent, is also a vigilant lit-blogger. It was she who alerted me to this interview the amazing Duotrope did with the fantastic Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s.

Now, I’ll own Jeannine brought it to my attention because I am mentioned therein, but something else about it caught my eye. In part of her response to the question “What is the best advice you can give people who are considering submitting work to your publication?” Sheila said: “Most stories are underpopulated. A lot of the tale can be told through the interaction of characters.”

I don’t think Sheila knows it, but she has my number here. (She doesn’t know it unless I’ve mentioned it to her. I’m a procrastinating perfectionist, so she doesn’t see a story from me until I’m pretty damn proud of it.) I have learned from hard experience that when a story is just not working — it doesn’t want to unfold onto the page, or the first draft is flat as a board — adding a character often fixes it.

I actually wrote a story draft last year where only one character appeared in the flesh (a few more via videoconference. And a cat.) Did it need to have only one character? Was it about solitude, loneliness, shut-ins, or anything of the sort? No. In fact, having only one character made the story flat and unengaging. Once I added a second character, the draft started working and more conflict started seeping in. I hardly need tell you that a story needs conflict like a sled needs snow. With a second character on the scene and a few more revisions, I deemed that story ready to go to Sheila, and it will appear next month in the June issue.

I wish I could say that that was the first time I’ve needed to add more characters to a story, but in its first version, “Conditional Love” was missing one of its most important characters. I threw out that version and rewrote from scratch. It took a lot of revision even so, but the story found its heart as soon as I wrote Minerva in.

Like most specific writing advice, this doesn’t apply to everyone. I know I’ve talked to other writers who have to cut characters out routinely. Maybe my tendency to draw a small cast onto a stage is related to my tendency to write spare drafts that need to be expanded — another habit many writers don’t share. But I am pleased to report that like many bad habits, underpopulation can be minimized through practice. I haven’t had to stop mid-story to rip up and reweave with a new character for a while, and hopefully I’ll continue the streak. Even though I’m alone with the page, my characters don’t have to be.

Comments

I love this!

I once paid an editor to review a novel I was working on. We met over tea and it soon became clear that a) she hadn’t read my ms, and b) she didn’t care what I was trying to do. She advised what authors are commonly told to do—or were—and that was to cut out characters. I had a mother with two daughters. Why not only have one daughter, she said.

I could have explained that the relationships between daughters and mothers was central to the story, but instead I wrote her a check, fled, and stashed her page of notes unread.

I blamed myself at the time. It was a “young” novel and probably awful, but what was wrong with it would not have been fixed by cutting characters. Most of us live well-populated lives. Too many characters live lives between the covers without neighbors, parents, co-workers, and pets. They do not bump into people they used to know or fret about how to avoid the neighborhood block party.

That’s where I should stop before this becomes a full-fledged rant about the lack of occupation in most stories.

FYI, Jan, I have read your comment and am now percolating more bloggery as a result. Hence my lack of thoughtful comment-reply! :P

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