When the Book’s Too Short

I’ve been socked down in figuring out subplots for Miasma, the book I’ve revising.  Out of it, I’m learning what to do when a book runs too short.  I had a revelation when I was working on a writing article on when the book’s too short last year.  I suddenly realized how many workarounds I was doing to get the length up.  I was making more work for myself!  So:

Do NOT simply add more words to get word count.  If you’re keeping an eye on the word count and watching it ping over, you’re going to be in trouble.  Don’t add more description, add more plot or story, characters, or subplots to get more word count.  The key phrase here is ‘get more word count.’  This is very easy to do if you’re asking for advice and people are telling you to simply “Add more plot/story” or “Add a subplot.”   If you’re thinking about word count while you’re adding story, you might end up with too much story or too much of the wrong kind of story because you’re trying to fill pages.

Instead, print an entire copy of the manuscript from begininng to end.  Read it completely and identify all the problems–places where you didn’t develop something enough; had trouble and skipped over fixing it; and any other problem you can think of, even if you’re not sure what the problem is.  This is the single most important step.  It is very easy to think about jumping in and fixing the problems, but if you don’t see the picture, you may miss an overall problem that’s causing the others.  I tend to start too late into the story, so I ended up with a lot of problems with scenes the followed that were trying to fix the lack of story setup. Fixing the individual scenes–which I was doing–didn’t help because I wasn’t fixing the original problem.  I actually needed to add more to the front.

Brainstorm out how you might fix the problems you’ve discovered.  You might add new complications, develop something you discovered, or add a subplot that fills in something that was missing.  If you’re very short, this will be a LOT of work.  You aren’t adding more words–you’re pulling apart the story completley and figuring out how to reshape it so you can write new scenes that fit the story and make it better.

It’s a lot of work–but it’s where you want your work to be.  You want to spend time chasing down little problems like that scene where something needs to happen, but you can’t figure out how to get there–not on writing it and then finding out there’s a problem.  Not fun.  And probably three times as much work, especially if you end up tossing out scenes you’ve revised many times trying to fix.

I’ve been doing mine in a spreadsheet:

  • Scene #
  • Scene summary
  • Bucket–that’s my term for a category to identify the plot from the subplots with a name.
  • Setting–I found it helpful to identify this.  Instead of scanning through all the scenes, I can scan for a particular setting.

To shuffle the scenes around, I just change the scene number to where it’s supposed to be and then sort.  I’ve also found gaps in the flow of the story, so I’ve put a placeholder scene there and changed the cell color until I figure out what needs to go there.  I also have a scene which has a big problem I haven’t figured how to solve yet, so I changed the cell color to identify it.  If I were writing at this point, I’d be at a dead stop, trying to figure out how this scene needs to happen and might end up back rewriting earlier parts to fix it.  Right now, working just with the higher level, I’m saving myself that time by working it out in advance.

If you’re fixing a novel that’s too short, it’s going to be a lot of work doing this.  But it’ll be a lot less work than revising it and still finding out it’s too short and having to fix it again.