Fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Posted on Feb 24, 2007 in Blog, Writing | 2 comments

I’ve killed before; I will kill again.

I just killed a character.

Well, what I really did is rip his guts out. He was fat; now he’s thin. And pretty much everything else about him is going to be changed as well, which means that around 90,000 words worth of references to what this guy was like and what motivates him will also need to change.

Sometimes, when I write a story, I do pretty well with this stuff. Nailing down the character I need, and making him or her do the things that I need him/her to do (March, you lazy bastards! Line up! Gimme 1000 jumping jacks!) but every so often, I get tangled up.

And then there’s a period of brooding, because I often don’t know what’s wrong with the story, but know that it’s just not working. And I’ll end up rewriting scenes or moving periods and commas around and changing the tense of the thing as I hunt for the real problem which is often significantly more extensive than just a couple of punctuation marks.

In this case, I’m feeling pretty clear that I was cluttering up the story with, god forbid, too much character texture, and a too-nuanced personality. I’m simplifying him. Hopefully not to the point of caricature, but still, paring him away in a number of ways. Gone is his fleshy exterior. Gone are some of his moral qualms. A leaner, hungrier, more active character emerges. Or so I hope.

Either that, or I’m just writing in circles. Could be either, could be both. Ain’t writing grand?

Sometimes, my decisions to drastically rewrite a story have paid off. When I wrote “The Fluted Girl” originally, it was from Madame Belari’s perspective. The entire story focused on Madame Belari’s trials and tribulations. The fluted girls were simple background and set piece furniture for Belari’s ambitions. They were handy and interesting as furniture, but Belari was my focus. I later decided this was a complete mistake, but it took a long time to accept it, and an even longer time to rip the entire piece apart, write it from the fluted girl’s perspective and turn Belari into the supporting character. I don’t think a single scene survived in any form from the original version.

Which brings me to the question of writing speed. This has come up before in any number of places. People keep track of their output, some of which I flat out envy. But there’s this other question in my mind about the value of mulling and reworking and simply obsessing over a piece. Speed is productivity, sure. But it doesn’t necessarily get the story where you want it to go. In my case it has sometimes done the opposite. On the other hand, there’s always the danger that you become precious and uptight about your writing and the work never gets completed.

I don’t draw a one-to-one connection between meditative story writing and quality. When I wrote “The People of Sand and Slag,” it wrote very quickly, popping out almost fully formed once I sat down to write it, and that too was a successful piece, and with a lot less writing angst. And there are some stories of mine which have never come to fruition because I continue to brood on them, and am unwilling to either let them be and send them out, nor can I figure out how to make them work for me. Stillborns, I suppose.

The question in my mind is what markers we as writers use to make sure that the thing we’ve worked on has been worked on enough. For me, often, it’s simple exhaustion, or a lurking dissatisfaction, but it’s a bit of a black box for me in determining whether a story works or is simply adequate.

So, to recapitulate my ramble. There’s a fine line between clever and stupid, that being the difference between rationally assessing and revising a piece — often in dramatic and shocking ways — and simply churning your wheels in a pointless mud of self-criticism and doubt; and also between being productive and getting your work out into the world and simply throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.

Are there any signposts that an author might use to distinguish between wisdom and madness? Between clever and stupid? For me, it’s exhaustion and a general sense of boredom with a piece, a sort “Yeah yeah, so what?” feeling that won’t go away. I’ve also used outside readers to see if they look at me with a glow in their eyes or if they seem somehow disappointed or let down. It’s all horrifyingly inexact.

With a novel — with all those words already laid down, all those decisions already made — everything feels like it has higher stakes. Throwing away a 10,000 word novelette is a bummer. Doing it to 90,000 words feels a bit like suicide.


  1. I’m no great fan of Sting, but he said something once that stayed with me – which is: “Songs aren’t written in studios; they are abandoned there.” He meant that you could work a peice of music forever, but at some point you had to take it to the studio to let it go. I know writers who rewrite constantly and writers who do very little rewriting. I don’t know that one is preferable to the other; all that matters is what works. But how you know when you’ve hit that ineffible mark of quality? As an editor, I know almost immediately when I read something that pushes beyond the threshold of the merely competent, but how to have the honesty and clear-sightedness to recognize the quality in your own work….

  2. Thanks so much for posting this. It’s great to see writers I admire discuss their process and these very issues, especially for writers like me who like to brood over their work and worry we fit into the “never finish a novel” category. :)

    I will finish a novel, btw. :) My master’s degree depends on it. :)