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June 22, 2002

The Evil Overlord Devises a Plot
Posted by Teresa at 03:50 PM *

Every year, I teach at Viable Paradise. It’s an intensive week-long SF & fantasy writers’ workshop held on Martha’s Vineyard. (Some student reports from previous years. Some photos from last year.) This year it runs from 29 September through 05 October, and the other teachers are Patrick, Jim Macdonald and Debra Doyle, Steve Gould, and James Patrick Kelly.

This week, on the other hand, is when the Secret Masters of VP assess applications. If you blew the application deadline, you could probably still throw an e-text story at us and we’d absentmindedly consider it along with the rest. We’re a tad behind on processing applications this year.

The Evil Overlord Devises a Plot is something I put together for a VP colloquium on “Stupid Plot Tricks.” It was a departure for me to be talking about plot at all. Plot is Jim Macdonald’s forte. His annual lecture—during which he explains that making plots is like building models, devising stage magic tricks, playing positional chess, and baking a Key Lime Pie—is brilliant, a masterful performance, packed so full of useful insights that students are still unpacking it months and years later. He also does hands-on lab sessions. When I hear a student talking about how the skeleton of his story has been disjointed and reassembled into a different animal that runs faster and jumps higher, I know Jim’s been working him (or her) over.

I normally hang out at the other end of the spectrum, talking about expository theory, sentence-level events, how reading works, appropriate level of detail as a function of pace, and five major and eleven minor techniques for gracefully fudging the bits you don’t know. My party trick—which you’re not going to see on Sabado Gigante anytime soon—is a live-action demonstration of where, how, and why you can chop 10%-40% of the words out of a scene without affecting its meaning or tone.

On the other hand, we’d had a run of stories that were light on story. I figured that if I could teach the students some low cheap tricks for coming up with plots, it would give them something to work with while Jim was teaching them how to do it for real. Unfortunately, I later mislaid all my notes except for the introduction, so I’m not sure what I told them.

Here’s the introduction: “Plot is what maintains a decent separation between the front cover and the back cover of a book. Story is what gives the readers the incentive to read all the pages in order. Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature. And now that we’ve got that out of the way…”

I recall telling them some basic moves, like how you can get away with hokey crap a lot better if the story’s moving fast and other cool things are happening, and how you can make two or three half-baked ideas look deceptively substantial by using them in combination. I fear I may have told them—this is like remembering what you said last night at the party—that it counts as originality if you try to do an outright imitation of some other writer but get it so wrong that no one can tell that’s what you were trying to do.

Whatever other low depraved advice I gave them is lost to history, unless one of them comes up with their class notes.

Anyway, The Evil Overlord Devises a Plot was the class assignment. It uses the Evil Overlord lists—you do know the Evil Overlord lists?—as the basis of a plot-generating engine. And the awful thing is, it works.

Comments on The Evil Overlord Devises a Plot:
#1 ::: Fran Wolber ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2002, 05:11 PM:

Just for the record: VP rocks!

My physical notebooks (and all our other worldly goods) are still floating somewhere in the Pacific, but I do have a partial write-up from my lecture notes on disc. Yell if you want a copy.

#2 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2002, 07:40 PM:

Sure, I'd love a copy -- any and all of it you care to send, and thank you very much.

#3 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2002, 11:55 PM:

Looks lovely. If that sandbar pretending to be an island is still there in 2003, I'll probably apply.

In the meantime, anyone care to offer opinions on fiction-structuring packages like, "Writer's Dreamkit?" (I know, only sign the backs of checks, but I reckon that if I'm thinking of writing a check for VP, I'm not a pro yet.)

#4 ::: James Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 10:07 AM:

I haven't used Dramatica (nor any other story-building software -- though I once did try a freebie demo version of Writers Storyblocks or whatever heck that one was called, and discovered that it made writing harder and so gave up after perhaps not a fair trial).

So, with that caveat, I don't think that you'll get more out of $269.95 worth of Dramatica than you will out of $2.69 worth of file cards. (I read some of the movie reviews that they give as examples, and discovered them to be wrongheaded to the point of uselessness -- to the extent of missing who the main character was, or what the dramtic turning point of the story was.) Recall too that in terms of structure that movies are short stories, not novels.

If, however, buying Dramatica is what it takes to get your butt into the chair and your fingers onto the keyboard, then it's worth it.

#5 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 11:58 AM:

Thanks, for the steer away from the $270 version. I was thinking of trying out the $75 version, a cost much closer to "chump change" in my universe.

Definitely did not want a movie/play scriptwriter: my main vaster than empires and more slow writing project uses a Ben Jonson play for its plot armature, so I'm trying to move away from that kind of structuring and into a more novelistic arrangement. I've also recently figured out that the play only really gets me to an initial crisis/revelation point in the novel, so I take you point about short stories.

That is, I could make the play into the species (if not quality) of short story that Terry Carr used to buy for Ace Specials, the kind that can be extended to novel length if you punch a few holes in the wall and install an electrical subpanel in the attic.

Thanks for the advice, hope to see as an instructor in Fall of 2003.

#6 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 11:59 AM:

VP sounds wonderful. The Evil Overlord stuff is very funny too; I'm not sure I'd use it to devise a plot (my fiction, such as it is, is way short on villains).

I'd love to do it someday, but I think it might be weird for me, and for you...also I'm not a "young writer" - or a young anything - any more.

#7 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 01:05 PM:

Bob, save your money. More on this anon. I'm looking at Dramatica, and am appalled. No, worse: I'm embarrassed for them.

I'm also perversely fascinated. I'll try to keep my reply short. Watch this space.

#8 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 01:24 PM:

Okay, first demonstration of Dramatica's approach to writing. The following lists refer to a famous work of fiction. The =italicized= values were generated from the other values and filled in by the Dramatica Story Engine, a core software module.

The unitalicized values were assigned to this work of fiction by whomever put this demo together (most likely Melanie Anne Phillips), and are derived from Dramatica's associated body of literary theories.

Here's the test:

A. What work of fiction is being used for this demo? (No fair peeking.)

B. If you were in the middle of writing a work of fiction, would the information filled in by the Dramatic Story Engine be useful to you?

THE LISTS:

1. Character Dynamics:

Resolve: Change
Direction: Stop
Approach: Be-er
Mental Sex: Male

2. Plot Dynamics:

Work: Action
Limit: Optionlock
Outcome: Failure
Judgment: =Bad=

3. Thematic Choices:

Domain: =Mind=
Concern: =Memory=
Range: =Truth=
Problem: =Thought=

4. Main Character Appreciations:

MC Domain: Psychology
MC Concern: =Conceptualizing=
MC Range: =State-of-Being=
MC Problem: Thought
MC Solution: =Knowledge=
MC Focus: =Change=
MC Unique Ability: Situation
MC Critical Flaw: =Interpretation=

#9 ::: Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 03:25 PM:

Bob, there is a dramatica demo you can try (http://www.screenplay.com/products/demoform.asp?productKey=windramatica). Like Teresa, I was unimpressed.

#10 ::: Fran W ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 04:43 PM:

Christopher: Don't let age (or anything else, for that matter!) stop you from attending VP. I didn't even start writing till I was in my late 30's. I found VP to be fabulous. My partner (also a writer) and I both feel that the workshop was the best investment we've ever made.

Teresa: I've emailed you my notes. Yell if for some reason they don't arrive.

#11 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 05:38 PM:

No guesses yet?

#12 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 05:43 PM:

Not only can I not guess the work being discussed, I can't even figure out what the hell they're talking about, in ANY of those lists.

I'm going to go look at the demo now, and see if it even makes sense.

#13 ::: Fran W ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 08:01 PM:

Moby Dick

#14 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 08:39 PM:

I'll take "Hamlet" for $20, Gene.

#15 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 09:10 PM:

Fran, good guess. Not right, but a good guess.

Meanwhile, Hamlet for $20 is ... [sfx] ... the Daily Double!

Mike, if I'd guessed that, it would have been because the character's problem was defined as "thought". What tipped you off?

#16 ::: James Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 09:54 PM:

I'd have guessed Hamlet too: the clue was "MC Range: =State-of-Being="

That's "To be or not to be," and so on.

You will, of course, have Googled on Melanie Anne Phillips in order to find out what award-winning screenplays, best selling novels, and critically acclaimed short stories she's penned?

#17 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2002, 11:56 PM:

I was hoping that I could just get past the clunky jargon and get some useful insights. After the correct identification of Hamlet (a "Be-er", or, um, not.), I started to see what the jargon meant, and my first impression was, yes, I could work with this.

Then I realized that while I thought I knew what the jargon meant, the view of HAMLET it seemed to represent was childish and unduly influenced by fairly dumb C.20 exposition on the meaning of the play, focussed on that one famous soliloquy.

Not so good: either the software doesn't do what I want because it tries and fails, or it requires more critical knowledge of a work in progress than an author is likely to be able to correctly supply.

#18 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 12:31 AM:

"Thought" was a strong hint; "Be-er" was pathognomonic.
I hadn't realized (not having been interested, really) that this particular lump of expensive code is supposed to analyze plot, rather than just spit up ideas in the fashion of dear old PLOTTO.
I've actually read the early-century version of that, lent by a rare-book dealer. The plot I recall involves the characters being pent beneath a giant magnifying lens by natives, but using their knowledge of an imminent eclipse to . . . hmm, I wonder if he finally sold the book to Michael Crichton?

And, Jim, put it this way: how much would you pay for "Joe Eszterhas's Basically Instinctual Scripting Engine"?

#19 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 12:41 AM:

"Optionlock" might as well have been coined to describe Hamlet. That was the give-away.

#20 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 01:00 AM:

I'm tickled by the idea of John VanSickle's grand cliche list being used as a writing aid. I was just Googling the great big Usenet thread in which we threw him all those lovely cliches.

As a writer I've been hung at the starting block for years by the feeling "oh, this idea I thought was original is just an imitation of story X." I think I've read too many books. Back in high school I had no such inhibitions and wrote all sorts of gloriously derivative garbage, and some of it really wasn't that bad. It seems less derivative when you've gone ahead and hung some flesh on the bones.


#21 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 01:21 AM:

"Optionlock" sounds like something you can do to your keyboard.

#22 ::: Stephanie C. Smith ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 09:21 AM:

My VP notes are marvelously incoherent. I must have been absorbing too much to transcribe. ;) I did scribble that a fast-moving plot will keep the reader from arguing.

#23 ::: Beth ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 09:22 AM:

Dramatica: The combination of Male, Be-er, and OptionLock clued me in.

VP: To anyone who is wavering about VP -- go. It's an injection of pure writing inspiration, together with practical directions and a customized map. (Your part is to walk the road.)

Teresa: I thought your VP party trick was falling down whenever someone -- usually Jim -- surprised you with a joke.

#24 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 09:50 AM:

There was a program called Storyline Pro offered by a Hollywood type which, in its earliest incarnation, was both inexpensive and useful for (and I mean ONLY for) playing with ideas and plot sequences (assuming you had invented them yourself and written them in). The program was basically a hypercard stack.

My understanding now is that it has morphed into a Dramatica type monster with the same approach, modelled on the "21-point storyline" and other such Hollywood simplifications.

Best,

JF

#25 ::: James Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 10:02 AM:

"Joe Eszterhas's Basically Instinctual Scripting Engine"?

Oh, my.

Oh, my goodness.

As it happens, I have a fully-functional version of "Jim Macdonald's Highly Developed and Entirely Rational Plot Washer And Dryer with Extra Spin Cycle" right here. Did I ever tell you about how I use Celtic knotwork as an outline?

Other useful plot generators include grandmaster-level chess games. Really.

#26 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 12:08 PM:

Jim -- the Esterhas (to spell his name right) line -was- a joke. I hope. And chess games worked for John Brunner.

I keep thinking about repackaging dear old Eliza as a plot machine . . .

"Why do you say there would have been a time for such a word?"
"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow? You seem quite positive."
"Have you thought about alternatives to the way to dusty death?"
"Tell me more about the idiot."

- . . but it would be, well, what we used to call "wrong."

#27 ::: James Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 12:47 PM:

No, Mike, it wouldn't be wrong. Think of how much poverty and suffering you could ease if you had a fat bank account. Think about splitting the loot with me, just because you're a swell guy and so am I.

Write it in Visual Basic with a glitzy interface. Put it in a four-color-printed box. Charge three hundred bucks a copy for it. Advertise in Writer's Digest. There you go.

#28 ::: Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 03:23 PM:

Fran: I originally thought Moby Dick too, but I changed my mind thinking Ahab was a do-er not a be-er. I breifly thought of Hamlet, but then I realized time was wasting and besides, my work tasks actually seemed more interesting.

#29 ::: Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 03:24 PM:

The Secret Masters of VP sounds like a great title for one of those Turkey Lexicon stories.

#30 ::: Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 03:53 PM:

If we're discussing Joe the screenwriter, then Jim did spell his name right: Eszterhas.

#31 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 04:54 PM:

Ah. Well, it was me I thought had spelled it wrong, believing I had confused Joseph (of whom the late Gene Siskel said, "Having now proven he cannot write female characters, perhaps he'll stop trying.") with an Avram Davidson character, something one would not wish to do even accidentally.

#32 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 06:25 PM:

"Pathognomonic." That tickles. Thank you.

I've never seen Plotto myself, just read descriptions. I wish someone would put out a facsimile edition. It does have the virtue of having been written by someone who could crank out plots by the armload.

Scott, thanks for pointing me at the demo. I did check it out.

Bob, Kevin, it doesn't surprise me that the Dramatica story engine has options that are perfect for Hamlet, nor that it appears to use 20th C. critical interpretations of the play.

You know how if you ask people for a number between 1 and 10 they'll usually pick 3, and if you ask for a particularly random number between 1 and 100 they'll give you 37 or 17? By the same sort of defaults, color = red, painting = Mona Lisa, and great work of English literature = Hamlet. You build in answers for the one test question you know is going to come up.

Beth, that's my general-purpose party trick. I feel myself a very drab instructor next to Jim.

Thank you for the vote of confidence -- and you too, Fran

Jim, of course I googled her up. Short bios of the two creators of Dramatica: http://www.dramatica.com/theory/addl_materials/aboutauthors.html. Neither is a writer. Mr. Huntley has nontrivial software credentials.

Melanie Anne Phillips' list of all her creative work: http://storymind.com/melanie/. I notice that she's working on a story for "an upcoming book of shorts and unfinished pieces called 'Fragments'," no publisher mentioned. The bit of story attached to this announcement is very short, neither good nor bad.

Melanie Anne Phillips' fiction: http://storymind.com/melanie/writings.htm. There are two more short stories, one of which is for children, the other of which is unreadable. There are also two screenplays. One's actually a treatment. It's Jaws, only the sharks have taken to cruising through snow and are preying on young skiers. I'd give it a place in the Happy Slush Log.

The journal of Dave Phillips when he was in the process of becoming Melanie Anne Phillips: http://www.heartcorps.com/melanie/diary/diary.htm. This is relevant only because it explains why Dramatica insists on referring to a character's "mental sex", a category it defines as "differentiates between male and female problem-solving techniques," instead of specifying their gender.

{glyph of suppressed rant in re stupid theories about problem-solving techniques and gender}

And then there's the poetry. And the annotations thereto. And the various web instantiations of her theories.

Perhaps I should stop now.

No, add this: a fairly sensible article from 1995 about story-development software: http://www.wga.org/WrittenBy/1995/0195/sftware.htm. Sums up the issues very nicely.

#33 ::: James Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2002, 11:33 PM:

Alas! For when this page is archived all these comments shall be lost.

#34 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2002, 07:49 AM:

Comments aren't showing up in my archives? Let me see if I can flip a few switches and fix that. They're still there in the database.

Six or seven comments came in while I was writing that long one yesterday, if anyone was wondering. I have to say that Scott's take on Dramatica seems like the sanest reaction imaginable. And Mike, I love the idea of adapting Eliza as story-analysis software. Should we combine her with the Evil Overlord plot generator? This is becoming a fabulous machine, like D. West's mimeograph.

#35 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2002, 09:56 AM:

The archives don't have the "comment" link. Fixing this by hand would be easy, but time consuming (lots of cut-and-paste)

There should be a switch, failing that, there's certainly a programmatic solution, but I'd have to download MT and stare at the code. (There are people who could glance and fix it, but I'm a net/sysadmin, not a developer.)

#36 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2002, 11:03 AM:

>>This is becoming a fabulous machine. . .

Can't get published? Still imagine you aren't being read past the third expository graf? Have you updated "Nightfall," "Nine Billion Names of God," "Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" AND "Big Two-Hearted River," and they're still coming back singed?

Troubling you is that what is, young Jedi?

Well, now there's

HACKWELL'S DEMON

(No, not "Damon." Who are you kidding?)

Know Stuff Without Learning It!
More Fun than the Video Professor, and unlike him, knows the difference between "comprise" and "compose" (with moderately priced plugins)!
Less Codependent than Everquest!
And They'll Love The Part Where Everyone Is Run Over by a Helix of Ravening Energy!

Only $449.50, or Six Easy Payments of $129.95!
(You Don't Have MathCAD, Right?)

#37 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2002, 12:50 PM:

Teresa,

Besides the mechanics of writing, do you ever go into that harder-to-define aspect of writing at VP? Here's an example, which I just happened upon (to my delight) taking the Green Line into work today, something that probably should have been written by Stephen King, or Barbara Kingsolver--but never was:

"Several writers have noted the feeling of discomfort experienced by the writer who carried within himself a work not yet written and which, even before it has been undertaken, 'wants to come out.' If it is ever to be born, it will not be before its term of nine months or nine years--nonum prematur in annum--after which the writer will once more find himself alone, in the solitude where he was before conceiving it. The very feeling of these solitudes sufficiently confirms the living presence so vividly experienced in between. It will be hard to convince the artist that during the years which were sometimes required for it to become viable, that the work in him was nothing...."

Courtesy of Etienne Gilson. I bring it up because it seems hard sometimes, even learning the craft, to know when the time is actually right (write!) to put pen to paper. The difficulties of plot-construction may be a major reason. But oftener it seems more a matter of how well you know your characters...

Best,

John F

#38 ::: Vicki Rosenzweig ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2002, 10:35 AM:

I got "Hamlet" as soon as I reached "be-er"--as Teresa says, it's the easy answer to "name a great work of literature" and therefore likely to be in such a thing. And I'm supposed to be looking at Shakespeare for an unrelated project, so it may be more on my mind.

Oh, one more vote for Mike going ahead with that fancy Visual Basic interface for Eliza-as-writing-machine.

#39 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2002, 08:42 PM:

John, I'm always interested in those aspects of writing, and will happily talk about them in informal discussions, but I don't bring them up in class. Our VP students come from diverse backgrounds and we only have them for one intensive week, which gives us this great combination of opportunity and vulnerability, but almost no chance to retrieve our errors. I try to never let myself forget how easily writers can be headtripped and led astray.

But what comes up in conversation late at night -- that's another matter. I've sat out on the porches at the Island Inn, or on the beach a mile down the road where you can see stars overhead and luminous ctenophores in the water, and talked writing and related arcana until way past my bedtime.

#40 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2002, 06:40 PM:

Talking of things there isn't necessarily time for at VP -- Teresa, if you did your scene-chopping party trick my year, I think I missed it. I know it couldn't possibly match the live-action version, but I don't suppose you have a cheat sheet for it on the web somewhere? I have a 20,000-word story that needs to be 15,000, and I've already cut the _easy_ 3000.

#41 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2002, 09:48 PM:

Sorry, David, no cheat sheet. That one's live-action only. Knowing what to cut, and how, and why, is a function of my entire understanding of English. That understanding isn't as oceanic as the language itself; but I can't imagine trying to write it down from first principles onward.

I've only started to think of it as a party trick during the last year or so. Recall that I've spent a lot of time as a copyeditor. When I started teaching at VP I was more used to authors who go ballistic if they see a lot of red pencil on their pages, so I went easy on the students.

On the other hand, I also have a long and embarrassing history of absentmindedly copyediting whatever's in front of me, if it needs it and I have a pencil in my hand. One afternoon at VP during a one-on-one that involved a lot of text analysis, I wandered from absentminded copyediting into absentminded full-scale line editing, murmuring the reason for each change as I made it. When it occurred to me what I was doing I stopped, horrified, and tried to apologize -- only to find that my student was delighted. He thought it was great. He said he'd never realized how thoroughly you can edit down prose, or how quickly.

I don't always do my Veg-o-matic number, either. Going over "Wolves Till the World Goes Down" with Greg van Eekhout did not involve a lot of simple deletions. Working over Scott Jansson's story was half a textual thrash, and half a philosophical discussion of what dogs do and don't understand. It depends on the story.

I could be wrong, but I think the episode Scott photographed (http://www.scottj.net/images/VP/DSC00058.JPG) was the first time I ever used that term for thrashing someone's text. It was the last day of the workshop, and Yog came up to me and asked whether I'd be willing to sit down with one of the students with whom I hadn't had a one-on-one. I forget how Yog said it, but it was a little confusing, so we discussed it for a minute. "Oh," I finally said. "You want me to do my party trick."

"Exactly."

And thus it was named, and thus it happened. I sat down on the floor with the author sitting in the chair behind me so he could see what I was doing, and set to work. It wasn't until much later, when I saw Scott's photos, that I realized we'd collected an audience.

All that said, it now occurs to me that I do know a few rules of thumb for shortening text. The first is that the real beginning of the story can often be found one or two or six paragraphs past the beginning of the text. Of course, if you've already cut the easy 3K words, you've probably already chopped that bit.

The second is that explanations often reflect what the author knows about that bit of the story, not what's needed there. If my copy of the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes hadn't been swiped by someone at Chelsea House, I'd be able to tell you who this illustrative anecdote is about, but it was, so I can't; and furthermore I'm probably going to get a few details wrong. Doesn't matter.

Two men are collaborating on a play. One of them has written a scene that needs shortening. In it, a guy has declared his love for a woman, and been told that she thinks of him as a friend. He responds to her with a long speech, protesting this and declaring that and vowing something else, but mostly protesting. Whatever. It's a long speech, and it needs cutting.

The other writer, the one who didn't write the scene, struck out the entire speech, and instead had the man say, "And you expect me to banquet on this cracker?"

Perfect. Went straight to the point: 'What you offer me is not bad, but it is also not enough.' That's the best kind of scene-shortening I know.

Finally, if you absolutely cannot shorten the piece any further, try sending it in at its current length. There aren't that many situations where wordcounts are all that stringent. One's if you're on the Hugo committee and are determining a story's exact wordcount to see whether it meets the eligibility requirements for an award category. Another's if you're doing small corrections in a second edition and are forbidden to make changes that will cause cascading repagination throughout the book. A third is if your publisher printed your cover flats long before your manuscript was delivered, much less typeset, and yet failed to budget for the possibility that the actual spine size might differ from the arbitrary spine size used for the cover flats, necessitating a new set of separations and an extra print run. And the fourth is if you have an editor who really, really cares about exact wordcount.

And even if you're in one of those tightly-counted categories, bear in mind that (1.) there are a lot of different ways to count words (all but one of them wrong, IMO), which yield variable results; and (2.) editors don't sit around all day wishing they had some wordlengths to calculate. It's not one of their more meticulously maintained skills.

#42 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2002, 09:12 PM:

Wordcount: I've just been using the count that Word generates...I assume that's one of the wrong ones. What's the right one?

#43 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2002, 09:57 PM:

Thanks, Teresa. I'll give the story a once-over to see if, after several weeks away from it, I can see anything that can obviously be dispensed with -- or any interminable monologues that can be replaced by pithy quips -- and then send it in, limit or no limit. I suppose I can always revisit it if I happen to get a rejection letter beginning: "Gosh, I'd love to publish this if only it was ten pages shorter..."

Anyway, 17,000 words is "about 15,000 words", right? :)

Christopher -- the method I've seen most commonly used is to count the number of words in an average-looking page and multiply by the number of pages, either by actually counting every word on the page or by counting the words in a paragraph to estimate the number of words per line, and multiplying by the number of lines. For this story it actually came out pretty close to Word's count, but you might want to experiment.

#44 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2002, 10:41 PM:

It depends on the editor, but I can easily imagine "about 15,000 words" stretching to include 17,000 words -- assuming they're the right words.

How to count words: Pick one line on a page -- the tenth, let us say. Count the characters on that line. Spaces count as one. So does punctuation. Write down the total.

Go through the ms. and randomly find several more pages. Count the tenth line on those pages, too. If it's unusual -- three words long, or it contains an equation, or something like that -- count a line from a different page. Add up the totals. Divide by the number of pages/lines counted. The result is Characters Per Line, CPL.

If you're using proportionally-spaced type, count two or three times as many lines to compensate for the greater variability.

Count the number of lines per page. Compare this with some other pages to see whether they have the same number of lines. This is Lines Per Page, LPP.

Simple version: Number of pages x LPP x CPL = total characters. Divide by six to get your wordcount.

More elaborate version: Chapter sinks count as half a page. Partial pages at the end of chapters count as half a page. Text breaks are an extra line. Line-for-line text (signs, poems, etc.) counts as full lines. If you have a lot of excerpts, indented, in a smaller typeface, do a separate CPL count and tot the extracts up separately. Same goes for footnotes. Take your final number of characters, however you figure it, and divide by six.

Shortest version: Spaces count 1, punctuation counts 1, and six characters count as one word.

Do editors do this with every submission? Not on your life. Editorial macho takes different forms, like Beth Meacham's mutant ability to heft a manuscript and call off its typeset page length within a signature or less.

Every Tor Editorial employee I know of who's been able to do a full-scale formal character count learned how to do it while editing literary criticism at Chelsea House.

#45 ::: Greg van Eekhout ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2002, 11:03 PM:

Teresa:

I'm sure lots of us will want to refer to your word count method in the future. Would you be willing to put a link to it on your home page? Or how about on the Viable Paradise page?

#46 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2002, 11:31 PM:

It'll stay here where you can find it. Just this morning, I fixed the glitch that was keeping the comments from being readable when the post they're attached to goes into the archives.

If you click on the timestamp right under the headline, you get the permanent link for that post. That link will persist into the archive. Bookmark that, and the comments will come with it.

#47 ::: Greg van Eekhout ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2002, 11:43 PM:

Cool, that worked.

#48 ::: Kate Nepveu (comment spam by bali) ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2004, 02:11 PM:

With a weird attempt to be subtle, or something. (The URL is to a Bali travel company.)

#49 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2004, 03:29 PM:

Thanks, Kate. They have been duly zapped.

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Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.