Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Question from G

A little over a week ago, I got a nice email from a young writer (let's call her 'G', since that is her first initial, and the nickname of the captain of my favorite hockey team) who hails from my hometown. She had what she thought were a couple of small writing-related questions. Since Deer Park, Washington is populated by less than four thousand souls, connections are pretty bountiful. It turned out that this writer's father and uncle both went to high school at the same time as I did, and we were moderately acquainted. As a result, they knew about my books, and suggested that G ask her questions of me.

So she did.

As an author, I'm in that range of popularity in which I get emails from readers but not so many that I can't (or don't) answer each of them individually. I remember writing to my favorite authors (who got a ton more fan mail than I do) and how thrilled I was to hear back from them. So I figure that if someone takes the time to not only buy and read my book but to share their thoughts with me, the least I can do is reply.

But G's email represented a bit of a quandary. Her small questions were anything but small. Some were actually pretty large. So, after a couple of exchanges, she was gracious enough to agree to letting me answer her questions here, in case other people were wondering some of the same things she was.

This will be the first of several posts to accomplish exactly that.

Today's question was her first:  How do you write a multitude of subplots without getting off track?

It is a good question, really. In a way, I touched on it when I wrote about self-editing on the Down & Out Books blog. But clearly, there's more to it than just worrying about what to keep and what to cut...isn't there?


I remember the lesson Colin Conway and I learned with Some Degree of Murder. The original draft was finished in 2005 and ran about 111,000 words. We tried to find a home for it, but while there were several nibbles, no one took the hook. Time passed, and the marketplace changed, especially in the realm of independent (formerly self) publishing. We decided to go that route, pulled out the old manuscript and started revising.

Both of us were merciless during the revision process. We cut out entire scenes, including entire subplots, and stayed focused on the main story. The metaphor we used was that this book should be like a car driving on the freeway, headed fast for a destination. Anything that resembled an off-ramp was trimmed or eliminated. Yeah, you gotta stop for gas and to use the bathroom occasionally, but those are necessary things to keep you on the freeway, not a side trip.

"Stay on the freeway" was the mantra, and we stuck to it. We ended up with a much leaner novel of 73K words, and a book that remains among my best-selling titles.

So how does that lesson apply to G's question? Well, I think that if a subplot advances the main plot, or the character in a way that is indispensable to the main plot, you've got a subplot that must stay. If it doesn't, than you may be looking at something that needs a different home -- its own short story, another book, or heaven forbid, the trash heap.

Another element that I'd recommend is to remember that a subplot is exactly that: subordinate to the main plot. It needs to be as genuine as any other element of the book, but it doesn't need the depth. Or better stated, its depth doesn't need to be explored as completely (it still needs to be there, or it won't be very genuine, now will it?).

A key to making those subplots successful is being more succinct in that exploration. Bring those short story skills into the fray and say just as much or more in fewer words.

So there's my answer, G....first decided if the subplot needs to be there or not, then tell the story of those that remain as succinctly as possible.

Any other thoughts out there for G (who will be back on other occasions)?

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