by Donna Andrews of the Femmes Fatales
One of the things I’ve learned over a couple of decades of critiquing and teaching writing: how careful you need to be with the word “more.”
“We need to know more about your character’s backstory.” Valid comment . . . but what if it inspires the budding writer to ruin her opening chapter with ten pages of dense backstory?
“I think you need more tension.” Also valid . . . unless the critiqued writer overdoes it and inserts multiple irrelevant snapping twigs for her heroine to jump at, turning a sane protagonist into a quivering mass of anxiety.
“You need more dialogue.” “You need more description.” All too often, saying either of these means the writer will go overboard in the other direction.
When someone says “this needs more salt,” you don’t take the top off the shaker and pour the contents in. You add a little. You check the flavor. Add a little more. Luckily, unlike salt, most of the stuff you need to add to your first draft can be taken out again if you go overboard. But why create the need to take it out? Why not just work economically to begin with?
These days, whenever I tell someone their writing needs more of something, I try to remember to add, “But don’t add too much. See if you can add a page, not a chapter. A paragraph, not a page. Better yet, a sentence, not a paragraph. Maybe just a few words. See how few words you can add and still fix the issue.”
I am reminded of something that happened during the editing process of Chesapeake Crimes I. The initial editor abandoned the project after the first round of edits—why is a long story that I don’t even know the whole of. All I know is that I was picking up the pieces, going over the stories to see if I agreed that they were properly edited, working with the authors whose stories still had problems.
One author contacted me to say that she had liked her original draft of her story much better than the version that came out of her work with the first editor. I confess: I rolled my eyes and thought a few uncharitable things about writers who’re wedded to their own words, whether they work or not.
But then I reminded myself that I didn’t see eye-to-eye with all of what First Editor had done. So I asked the author if she’d give me her original version and abide by my decision on which was better.
Bless her heart, she agreed.
And she was right. Her original version was better.
Not perfect. I could see why First Editor had told her that she needed to give more information. There were a few data holes, non sequiturs, missed opportunities to ground clues earlier. Yeah, we needed a little more. But under First Editor’s flawed guidance, the author had turned a fairly short, efficient, amusing little short story into a huge, inflated balloon of a mess. They’d doubled the word count. The whole thing wobbled like a Macy’s Christmas parade balloon in a frisky breeze.
I plucked about fifty words out of the voluminous second draft and suggested where to insert them to fix the issues First Editor had identified. The author not only loved my suggestions, she came back with a few more tweaks that improved upon them. I won’t claim the final result was the top story in the collection, but it belonged; it stood on its own merits in a volume that also contained Elaine Viets’s Agatha- and Anthony-winning “A Wedding Knife.”
So these days, I’m quick to sound a warning note when someone says a story needs more of something.
And I’m especially wary when someone says “I really like this, but I think we need more. Maybe you should make it longer. Heck, expand it into a novel. There really is a novel here!”
Just say no, writers.
Because sometimes the best takeaway from a really good short story is that you want to know more. You like these characters and want to spend more time with them. You enjoy being in this fictional world. You adore the writer’s voice. You want to know more, and the fact that there is no more tantalizes you, makes you remember the story longer. You remember that story long after you’ve finished reading.
And that’s a good thing.
Leave them wanting more. No one knows who originally uttered this bit of wisdom—leading contenders include P.T. Barnum, Walt Disney, and Gypsy Rose Lee. But if you’re a short story writer, it’s good advice.