Cruelty to Characters Week

by , under editing, writing

In June 2001 I wrote this post on rec.arts.sf.composition. Years later I left the newsgroup because of nastiness and flamewars. Now it seems to be much the same as it was when I was there, only without me and a couple of people I met there (and who are still my friends) who also left because of the nastiness. Unfortunately, at least some of the causes of the nastiness are still there, so I’m not going back.

But, as usual, I digress. This was eleven and a half years ago. I finished the novel, called it Terms of Service, sent it out, got it rejected by one publisher and several agents, ran out of energy to weather the repeated blows to my face, and put it in the proverbial bottom drawer. I did write other things after that but never dared submit one. Now the climate has changed –self-publishing is becoming respectable– so when a friend asked me to help him test a new ebook self-publishing site I grabbed Terms of Service as the most finished thing I had, did a cursory edit for typos and stuff, and put it on the site. (It’s there, but I’m not linking to it, for reasons that will presently become clear.)

Too early, as it turns out. I got interested in it again and found a beta reader. An excellent beta reader: someone who likes this kind of stuff, is intelligent and observant, not afraid to be blunt, and unlike my alpha readers doesn’t know the setting at all, or at least didn’t before she’d read the novel and I told her she could read the website as well. She asked pointed questions, told me which things weren’t clear to her, and complained about the multitude of characters though she understood that the protagonist, because of the life she leads, would meet lots of people that can’t just be swept under the table for clarity of narrative.

But it needed revision anyway, so I’m now trying to get rid of characters who are really supernumerary. Of every minor character, I ask “Is this character doing anything for plot or characterisation? If yes, can someone else do it?” That made me get rid of one character and his two scenes altogether, because all he was doing was to show that the protagonist’s teacher was a bit of a cougar– this doesn’t need to be shown, even if she is, and I’m glad I’ve caught another instance of my tendency to use sexual depravity (well, something sexual I personally dislike or disapprove of) as shorthand for evilness. The protagonist does still narrowly escape being raped at twelve years old, but that doesn’t only advance the plot, it’s the springboard for it.

Another character had only one line in a meeting so I gave that to someone else– adding to the characterisation of the person who got it. Reduced the people in the meeting to only those who really matter, too.

A character with only a single scene to herself and a mention in another is staying, because she helps define the protagonist. And she’s keeping her name, because there’s a clearly defined etiquette for names in the setting and I want to show people honouring it.

I’d already discovered that the man the protagonist rescues in Chapter 16 and the man whose acquaintance she makes in Chapter 31, who stays her friend for years whatever happens, are the same man. This was somewhat of a revelation. Also, in an early revision (pre-submission) I cut out a whole subplot, more than 10.000 words, with horse-thieves who turned out to be the shady characters from Chapter 2, and made them reappear as the shady characters of Chapter 21 instead. (Just noticed that I didn’t name them that time; perhaps I should. On the other hand, it’s clear enough who they are.)

Doing this is exhilarating, but it sort of builds up pressure that inevitably makes me think at some point that (a) everything stinks, (b) I should start killing my darlings, meaning every single bit of writing that I’m fond of –yes, I know it doesn’t strictly mean that– and/or (c) all minor characters must go. When I notice that I stop and do something else, like dishes, or grocery shopping, or NetHack.

I’m doing about 4-5 chapters a day on average, meaning that this will be a longish Cruelty to Characters Week: 20 chapters done and 25 to go.