On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 9: Taking Your Bird for a Walk

The next “forbidden trait” I found in the Hugos and Nebulas I read was … failure to stay on topic.

When a writer goes off on a wild tangent that really doesn’t relate to the story, that’s referred to as “taking a bird walk” or “going down a rabbit trail.” Some writers are noted for these useless excursions. My best example is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I was given an English unabridged version once years ago because I enjoy the tale. The book was huge – over 1200 pages worth of story. Incredible! Even more amazing? A 100-page description of the history of the Paris sewer system and another rather extensive description of a battle involving Napoleon. Those were some serious bird walks.

None of the Hugos and Nebulas had bird walks nearly that impressive, but some had some pretty substantial digressions for bizarre minutiae that really had no significant impact on the plot. According to the Rules of Excellent Writing, every chapter, scene, page, paragraph, sentence, word, letter, and punctuation mark must prove it has a reason to exist. If it cannot, out it goes! … Even if it was the most brilliant piece of writing you have ever done. It serves to advance the plot or develop a character or it gets the axe.

I have writer pals who boast of their ability to cut a third of their drafts while revising. That saddens me. What kind of incredible stuff was lost? Sure, some stuff needs to go. Some things that sounded great in Draft #1 are clearly destined for the debris pile during the revision process, but cutting stuff because some Expert says you must lose X% of the word count in revision? Foolishness, I say.

When revising, test everything. If it’s necessary, fix what needs fixing and keep it. Get rid of what you don’t need, particularly if it’s uninteresting or unfixable. When it comes to those things that may not be necessary but add interest? Maybe you can keep a few of those. After all, the name of the game is entertainment.

In the end, there aren’t many who will care how many words were cut from the first draft. They only care if the story kept them entertained.

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8 thoughts on “On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 9: Taking Your Bird for a Walk

  1. I am finding this series very comforting. πŸ™‚ And rethinking whether I should truly delete some special portions of my book in the interest of “staying on topic.” I probably still will…but I’d rather not!

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    • Well, if the parts are interesting, I’d say leave ’em. I would not recommend 100-page bird walks like Les Mis… wow… More than anyone ever wanted to know about the Paris sewer system. O.o

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      • The part I have been planning to cut is one of my favorite parts and chock full of character development. It just didn’t tie in to the overall plot… But it ran multiple chapters. Hmm. Anyway, now I have something to ponder. πŸ™‚

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      • See if betas/critique partners like it?

        If it’s crammed with character development that /is/ relevant to the story, it still earns its place even according to The Rules.

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      • No one’s ever disliked it! I’ve gotten some assent from my main beta reader that it’s irrelevant. I’m thinking of morphing it into something slightly different. The main problem is that it screws up my “beats” for the main plot.

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      • Oh… hmm…. well, if it’s causing trouble then it either needs mutating or removal.

        Possible options:
        1. mutate it so it doesn’t monkey up the timing of the main novel.
        2. remove it and make it a short story
        3. remove it and use it as a “deleted scenes” extra on your webpage, a “freebie” to get folks to check out the main tale.

        I had a 30,000 word subplot in Lines of Succession that had to be removed because as cool as it was … the subplot caused an issue for the main plot and it was easier to remove the subplot than rewrite the whole back half of the novel to fix the main story.

        I plan to reset it so it works standalone and then publish it as a novella. πŸ™‚

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      • My current plan is to relocate it to Book 2, as well as mutating it somewhat. I’m bummed because the book doesn’t really feel the same without it, but I think it’s for the best pacing-wise.

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      • I understand. The good news is that it isn’t going away. It’s just moving to a new address.

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