Brevity for the Witty Soul

Post Date: January 17th, 2010

How did I keep going while writing a dozen full-length plays, forty-four short stories, and five novels that not only didn’t get published but—by standards I did not understand but innately strove for—didn’t deserve to get published?

— Robert Olen Butler, “Letters to a Young Writer”

Page Count, New Novel: 102 pages

In “Letters to a Young Writer,” Robert Olen Butler talks about those several unpublishable novels sitting in a drawer–unpublishable by his estimation, not just others’ rejections. I count two shelved novels for me: the one I wrote at age 16, and the one I’ve been writing the rest of my life.

About a month ago I shelved the Big Novel, in process since 1994, and I’m still fairly sure it will be outed eventually. But now is not its time.

In December I began a young adult novel. It has simmered a while, and had a brief incarnation in my head as a wovel, which would involve blogging weekly with new installments and allowing others to vote on the outcome for the next chapters. But then I realized that the character’s story needed my full focus and energy and not a distraction of what others thought. It needed to be a work of art for its own sake and not just a move to build a marketing platform. However, the original plan of making it audience-interactive fueled something my writing sorely needs: a snappy pace and a cause-leads-to-effect plot. At the end of each of the early chapters, I’d write, VOTE: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? and list options a, b, and c. My audience was definitely in mind, but especially my characters and the world of possibilities they could suddenly access. Every character who is introduced has an impact, and s/he then causes something to happen, and choices have consequence. Every time.

This is not the only new thing in my writing process. Also new is a vow to myself to stay within 300 pages. If I’ve learned anything from short story writing, it’s that one must have a handle on the unity of all things written. I have lost that grip on the Big Novel, and though some of it stays with me, I forgot what happened on page 444 or 666 (and maybe the devil’s in the details such as WAY TOO MANY PAGES!!!). Until I can take at least two weeks away from my normal life, I cannot get my head around the whole manuscript. I need to be fully in its space, immersed, transported. But a story of 20 pages? No problem. A story of 200? Not so scary, either.

What I can do with 200 pages is what I’m doing now: write the first 25, then print those out while the next 25 are unfolding. I carry the first 25 in hard copy around the house and grab at them to tweak whenever I get a moment. So those prior pages simmer while the new ones are in process. And when I can’t write another new word, I transfer hard copy edits into the electronic version, and that means something is happening. Something is moving forward.

So I have 100 pages and the story still clips along. I discovered the climactic event for the final fourth of the book, one day out roaming around or showering or cleaning; it just came to me. Then another idea hit me of what would spark the climax–the prelude crisis. I can’t see the last scene just yet, but I know in my heart and my gut that this story is meant to be.

My intense focus on this project has stopped the blogging and any new short stories, but that’s okay; what must be written, must be written.

And all those pages and pages of what I once thought witty in the shelved Big Novel: they are not worth the recycled paper they’re printed on. Perhaps when I emerge out of this new novel’s draft I will know what’s missing to narrow the prior, and how I can achieve unity of time and place, giving it just the right, small space to breathe. For nuns fret not in their narrow convent rooms. The Big Novel may chafe against the drawers where it’s shelved, but I trust it’s fermenting quite nicely.

Back to edits. Onwards! Here’s a story that won’t be forever coming, and I do believe I’m really enjoying this ride.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary Prompts

• What do you love to do that makes you forget about everything else? Describe just what you do, what you are feeling, and why it makes you forget everybody and everything.
• Imagine you could write a book about anything. What would you write it about? Who would you write it for? Why? If you can, draw a picture of the cover, too.
• What’s the shortest book you ever read? What’s the longest book you ever read? What size of book is “just right” to read, and why?

Secondary and Adult Prompts

• Write about your favorite activity that allows you to disappear into another world. It is an activity that takes you away from all worries, relationships, and concerns of daily life, and when you engage in it, you are completely immersed. Write a brief scene in the present tense where you immerse someone else in this task, helping someone else picture exactly what you experience when you do it.
• You are a finalist to receive a grant of $77,000 to spend a year writing a book. This book can be about absolutely anything, and it must be completed by the end of your year. What subject will you choose? Who would want to read this work? Why will you write it? What must you have in order to write it? Write the proposal that will allow you to win the $77,000–a year of freedom–to write this book.
• What’s the shortest book you ever read? What’s the longest book you ever read? What size of book is “just right” to read, and why? Write a review of your favorite book and let length be one of the criteria describing this book’s excellence.


  1. Interesting premise for that YA book! The Choose Your Own Adventure books come to mind. Those were such a neat idea.

  2. Lyn Hawks says:

    Hi, Diane,

    Exactly! I read those books as a kid and they were the print prelude to the branching scenarios, simulations, and 3-D story worlds of today. I foresee novels becoming much more interactive rather than a static, internal experience. I hope that the novel as we know it stays the novel, and I hope to explore these new formats as well.