This is no. 40 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Like a lot of writers, last November my friend Chad and I participated in a kind of modified National Novel Writing Month. We knew there was no way we would actually write a novel in a month; in fact, we’d already been writing our novels for years. But we decided to stick to a goal of 2,000 words a day, just to see if we could do it. Some days we ended up with a little less, and some days a little more, but on November 30, we each had close to 50,000 new words. By the first of December I’d deleted more than half of mine, but that’s okay—they were the wrong words.
Stripped down, slender novels are my very favorite kind. Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Andrés Barba’s Such Small Hands, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter—these books have a compression and intensity I find wildly appealing. Jenny Offill’s beautiful short novel Department of Speculation was borne of the ashes of something much longer. She’d been bogged down by a big project for years when a friend suggested she pull out her favorite ideas, lines, and images and start over with those scraps. Katherine Faw Morris’s brilliant Young Gods started out at 100,000 words but was published at just over 20,000. In a 2014 interview in Hobart, she talks about this brutal editing, something she did alone, before she had an agent or editor: “I was pretty sure that with every word I cut, I was making it more and more unsellable, but also that I was making it better. I was finally getting the feeling I wanted, which to me is the most important thing. This numb, cold, almost dead feeling: that’s what I wanted.” The sparse, “unsellable” version of her book sold immediately.
My 2,000-words-a-day experiment wasn’t a failure—it’s just that I’ve learned it takes a lot of ridiculousness to get to what’s relevant, at least when I’m working on a novel. When I write short stories, I move from sentence to sentence, each one like a bead on a necklace. The smaller scale allows me to hold the entire piece in my hands at once, to see the arc in a matter of weeks or months, to only put down what is essential. For me, this isn’t possible with a novel. It’s taken years for me to realize what my book is even about, years to feel out the full story. I’m not even 100-percent certain I can see it all now—it’s still surprising to me every day. I’ll add in digressions or side plots and realize much later that they don’t matter. When I go back and read old sections, I find things I have no memory of writing. Sometimes, present-me is impressed by past-me. Good job, I’ll think. This thread has been there all along! Other times I think past-me must have been drunk or asleep or that she’s messing with me on purpose. Goodbye, ten-page monologue on Tupperware, I’ll say. Goodbye, bitter side character based on a Subway sandwich artist I slept with in 2002. It doesn’t make me feel anxious to hit delete. With every paragraph, page, scene, or chapter I cut, I feel happier with what I’ve done, more confident about what I’ve chosen to keep.
Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.