Overwriting and Underwriting.

Do you overwrite or underwrite? An absolutely terrible question for any writer, but especially for those not yet published and trying to get an literary agent. In this industry, depending on your genre and the age group you’re writing for, you need to have a specific word count in order to get through those hurdles of getting an agent. Sunyi Dean, author of The Book Eaters, mentioned on twitter at one point that even when you do get an agent that agent may want you to add some words or take out some. But still, you have to be within a certain range first. And thus, overwriters and underwriters are caught within a deadly game of more editing to a story that they’ve already edited so much and may have rewriten so much already. What to do?

The above popular image is from this Writer’s Digest article. Apologies if the quality is not great. I could not save the image to my computer from the article and had to screenshow.

Anyway, first and foremost I am an overwriter, so let’s talk about that first.

Overwriting

Overwriting is simply when you have written too much. Too much description, too much going on at once, and way too many words. I suffer from this extremely and am currently dealing with in a recently finished draft–though some of the excess is just quotes and chapter and part titles, which I was informed those don’t count. Nonetheless, my story has way too many words. I do have a lot going on in this recent draft, but I also suffer from excessive descriptions and writing that could be considered flowery or experimental. My main problem with this extends for my love of said flowery and experimental writing. I don’t think such prose is bad writing. Yes, sometimes it can slow the reading progress down and make people confused, but that all depends on the author’s execution. I absolutely love the prose of Tamsyn Muir, Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, and Gene Wolfe. My first experience with Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer in the Shadow and Claw omnibus wasn’t necessarily a good one in terms of the story progression, but I did enjoy his prose. I was convinced (and bullied) to revisit The Book of the New Sun, which I will at a later date. Sriduangkaew is an author who has refined her prose as the years have gone on. It’s still very beautiful no matter what genre she writes in (currently urban fantasy and sci-fi at this time) and she always prioritizes it along with her need and desire to portray a multitude of powerful and morally grey lesbian characters. Lee has slowly become my favorite author of all time. She wrote a variety of weird stories in fantasy, sci-fi, and author and her prose was always beautiful yet readable. Like Sriduangkaew, Lee’s prose refined over the years, albeit she did utilize it differently depending on the genre and what the story required. Carter was the queen of purple prose–something she knew and didn’t care if someone didn’t like it. Out of all the authors here she is probably the most experimental and flowery. All of her weird, macabre, dark, hopeful, and very feminist stories are breathtakingly written and they still can pack a punch. Finally, Muir is nearing the completion of one of my favorite science fantasy series The Locked Tomb. Known for her snarky yet Gothic tone for the series, Muir can construct experimental syntax that leaves you confused, but also saying “Wow! That’s a damn good sentence!”

So, what I’m trying to get at is that I’m probably failing at what Ursula K. Le Guin was talking about in her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” Subconsciously, or perhaps even consciously, I am trying to imitate those writers that I love and trying too hard to sound smart and pretty. This a cause of overwriting, and as a result the story suffers from it.

How do you fix overwriting? Well, you edit some things out, make descriptions more succinct, and if and when you send your story off to beta readers you can request of them to point out what seems unnecessary so you can cut it. This is sometimes more than simply deleting a sentence or two or even a paragraph. Depending on what you need to discard, you have to look at the structure of your story overall. What will be affected by the plot and its climax(es) if you delete that part or another? Ultimately, this may lead to some rewrites within your current draft, or, more extensively, starting another draft altogether. Sometimes simpler prose is better, it gets to the point quicker and moves things along at a reasonable pace.

As I said, I deal with overwriting more extensively than underwriting, and from my perspective it seems to be trickier than underwriting. Again, from my perspective, not a collective community’s. “What do I take out?” seems like a question with a harder answer than “What do I add?” though the later is still difficult. Which brings us too…

Underwriting

So, you’ve got your story ready and completed and you got on your querying journey. After months or maybe even years (querying is still difficult no mater if you’re an overwriter or underwriter because publishing sucks) you get that agent. However, the agent isn’t quite ready to send your story off. “Add (insert number here)K words.” You sit there, staring blankly at the email requesting you to do this. You’re at a lost. Your word count is within acceptable range. And surely less words means less pages to print so it won’t cost the publisher that much, right? (Disclaimer: I have no idea if this is an actual thing, I am just spitballing and making up scenarios.)

Now what? What could you possibly add to this succinct and completed story? On second thought, maybe underwriting is just as difficult as overwriting.

What do you do to add to that word count? Everything seems perfect! Perhaps you took the Brandon Sanderson approach when you initially wrote and every scene and chapter moves HAD to the plot forward. Nothing wrong with that, but depending on your prose and writing, you might have gotten to the climax and conclusion a little too quickly. Maybe add some fluff? Add some characters doing some things that build their character and relationships to show how they act outside of pushing the story forward. Have you read through again and found things that aren’t well-explained? Detail them a bit. Do some worldbuilding. Perhaps you’ve found out that the plot progression was rushed. Space it out a bit. Add some scenes and dialogue with substance but still makes the pacing moderate. Develop that romance a bit more. Show a bit more heart-to-heart between the main character and their love interest, and with the rest of the cast! Maybe you’re looking at your story’s beginning and realizing that that way it starts is too quick, too rushed. Not enough of the plot or characters’ motivation is being established. Flesh that out a bit more.

Again, this is all just suggestions on my part. I’m not an expert nor I am not an editor. I can’t tell you what to do with your story.

All in all, what I’m trying to get at is that reaching that perfect word count is any always easily attained. And in genres like fantasy and sci-fi it can be even more difficult. How much have been the details overexplained or not explained enough? Are the character arcs at the right places. or have the reached somewhere too early (if you’re writing a series).

It’s a pain in ass, all of if. Just when you’ve completed that book and gotten that agent, or close to getting that agent, another curveball is thrown your way. Count on your beta readers and friends who can point out stuff that you can’t. If you got the finances for it, invest in an editor. I haven’t used her myself yet, but I’ve heard that Jeni Chappelle is great. She’s very active in the writing community.

You just gotta do what you can.

Advertisement

Shelving A Book You’ve Written

This isn’t writing advice. I wouldn’t know what professional advice to get in this situation. More of a venting.

Today, I’m talking about shelving a book, a WIP, you’ve written, and why it is absolutely one of the worst feelings to ever be encountered. For those of you who aren’t writers, here’s how it goes: You’ve got a book idea and you take awhile to think it through, sort it out, figure out your first scene and words. Then, you finally write it. You take months, a year, or hell, even years to write, because writing, no matter the genre, the plot, the number of characters, takes so long. After that entire struggle of writing, you finally finish that book. You finally did it! It’s not perfect, you know that, but some editing will help.

You edit the book yourself. Catch what mistakes you find (you will also miss some, don’t worry about it), reconsider some scenes and character choices, rethink the plot progression, and then you’re finished with those edits.

Now, it’s time to get some beta readers or critique partners! One or two–or three even–people (I’m not an expert on this part) read through your book. They catch all the errors you made and are the first minds, outside of your own, to react to your story. They tell you what worked and didn’t work and what can be improved upon. Sometimes their thoughts will clash with each other and you will have to figure out which one might help your story more. After you take consideration of their thoughts, you make more changes to your book. And then it’s finally TIME TO QUERY!

Yes, it’s time to find that literary agent who will get you connected to an editor at a publisher and get your book deal straightened out. You write up your query letter; somewhat difficult, but you look at other writers’ letters and templates on editors’ websites to get it better formatted. You look at the current market and what’s been released within five years for comps. You write your synopsis, which is even worse. Every major thing in the book summed up in one or two pages. Ugh! Now, you query! You make note of every agent you’ve queried and keep track to figure out when to send a follow-up or not. The rejections come in fairly soon, they always do unless you’ve written that book, which sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. And you query…for a year or more.

You might get requests for more of your book from an agent, might not. Some agents reject after reading more. Some ghost you. But then, you make it past the partial request and get a full one! And then more rejection and ghosting; but some do get past this part!

But then sometimes, after a hundred queries or more, you’re still in the basic querying stage. No one is requesting. Everyone is rejecting or not responding. You keep going because everyone says to, but still nothing happens. No responses.

You have taken years to write that book, but no one wants it. You took years to create those characters, animate them, progress the story, build that world, and give it a conclusion–and no one is taking it.

You now decide to shelve that book.

All that work and imagination seems fruitless now. What sucks about this even more is that this is not the only point when you can shelve a book. Sometimes you shelve the book while writing it, because you just can’t make it work or commit to it. A couple years back I had to shelf my Latine cyberpunk WIP because, even after starting another draft with a different plot, I just felt listless writing it. Right now, I have a Necromancy story that may be getting shelved soon. I have queried it over a hundred times and haven’t gotten one bite. For reference, the previous draft of another story (yes, I write a lot) got two partial requests that both ended in rejection; I decided to rewrite that one after some helpful feedback from one of the agents. However, this Necromancy book has gotten no biters. Upfront, I will say it’s pretty long–not 120K words long, but still pretty long–so perhaps that’s why. Nonetheless, I hate that I might have to say goodbye to this book, to all the work I put in for the magic system, the Gothic themes, and the unraveling mystery.

Books can also be shelved after you get an agent too, when you’re on submission. You and your agent work so hard to find an editor at a publishing, but no one wants it. Both of you did so much work and searching for the right home and then no one wants to give a home.

Basically, it’s just such a freaking sucky feeling that I hate having. That any writer hates having. It makes some want to quit writing altogether. All of that work is just lost because no one has any interest in it. Who knows? Somewhere down the line another agent might actually take the bite, just maybe they aren’t open to queries yet or, heck, haven’t officially been made an agent yet. Sometimes a writer can blow the dust off that shelved book when their agent and/or editor expresses interest in it. This is why it’s called shelved, it’s not completely gone or disregarded, but it can be left up there a long time.

When you shelve a book, you start to doubt yourself. You look at the books that did make, but aren’t very good, and you wonder, “How the fuck did they get published?” Your writing suffers and your mental health can suffer. “Why? Didn’t anyone like that book? Is it my writing? Is the story just dumb? Should I just stop? Will I forever be stuck working at my job and never tell my stories?” Grim thoughts, all of them, ones we don’t want to have. Given the way publishing is acting today, we sometimes wonder if our stories will be forever shelved. Authors from diverse backgrounds already face multiple walls and preventions in the publishing world and shelving their unpublished books may come with some extra sense of defeat. “Why? Why is it so hard to get an agent (this is all rhetorical, don’t provide me answers that I already know)? What am I doing wrong with my story? Why do all my beta readers and critique partners like my story, but no industry professional picks it up? What is publishing doing? Is it their fault? Is it my fault?” We read all the plethora of How-Tos and guides on writing, plotting, character developing, take all the online classes and courses offered by published authors and agents, but still nothing comes to fruition.

So what do we do? Like I said, this isn’t any writing advice; I have none to give. We can take a break from writing. We can start something else. We can quit writing altogether. We can just read those authors we love who are getting through and writing the stories we like and promote them. We can write fan fiction. We can just publish our wonderful, different, and weird stories on one of those free websites like Wattpad. So, that’s what we can do.

Our imaginations are endless, even if our desire to write and to try and get published aren’t. We will always have our stories, even if the industry doesn’t. And even if we write those stories for the intention of release, but not for the intention of being published, they are always our stories. And ours alone.

Cleaning the Dust Off and Getting Published!

Fun fact! I started this wordpress site years ago back in college to share my musings on the world. Now I’m overhauling it!

I am trying to become a writer, and my first short story–and my first publication ever!–is due out next year! My short story “The Boy Who Became an Entire Planet” is a YA sci-fi first contact story that will appear in Reclamation: An Anthology of Climate Horror, edited by Lauren T. Davila. I actually wrote the story for a contest years, but apparently only the winner of that contest ever heard back. My friend and fellow author Sheila Col√≥n-Bagley, whose picture book La Noche Before Three Kings Day comes out next fall, alerted to me to Lauren’s call for stories for authors of different marginalized backgrounds. For those who don’t know, I am Cuban through my father. “The Boy Who Became and Entire Planet” is, as I pitch it, the video game Mass Effect meets Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. It is set in the very far future where overpopulation has led the people of Earth to travel out to the stars and colonize different planets. Latine people get their own section of space: the Mundo System (if you know Spanish, you’ll understand the meaning of the system’s name). All the Latine cultures get their own planets without trouble from their planets’ natural environments, except for the Cubans. Havana, the new planet the Cuban settlers original founded, is populated by deadly, sentient plant life. Rafael Silva and his friend Beatriz Villaverde (again, if you know Spanish then those surnames will stick out to you) are tasked with quelling the hostile plant life.

That’s all I can say for now. What makes me excited about this is that I’m finally getting something published! I haven been writing and re-writing some full-length books for a while, and while a previous draft of one did get two partial requests from literary agents, I haven’t had much success in the querying trenches. Things got really difficult for everyone after the COVID-19 pandemic started. Also, I am still very unlearned about the publishing world and querying tips, so despite my two previous partial requests, I am probably doing something very wrong on that front. Short stories are usually how most authors writing speculative fiction get their foot in the door. If all goes well, my words will finally be out in the world. I am thankful for Sheila first alerting me to the call for stories and I’m excited to work with Lauren. She’s great!

So, to any still-struggling writers out there: I am still a baby in this industry, but please, never give up! If you have to, take a break. I actually took this entire week off from writing (and working out, ulp!) to relax my brain, but I’m back at it tomorrow after work.

Take care, y’all!