So here I am with the second installment of the Famous Writing Quotes series. This one caught my eye because it’s a problem I see often in my editing work.
What I think Chekhov is referring to is the fact that writers tend to work more self-consciously on the first and last sections of a story, because we’ve all been told those are the most important for catching readers’ attention and leaving them satisfied. In that sense, the writing here is less authentic, less “true,” than the middle sections, where you’ve become so immersed in the story and the merciless task of getting it on paper that you’ve forgotten about trying to impress anyone.
Let’s look at a couple of things that can go wrong and how to tackle this issue in your self-editing process.
So, how much do you cut?
Probably more than you think. Try going back to your opening pages and asking yourself: how much of this is just me getting to know my characters? You may be spending precious pages telling readers about your character’s childhood, her likes and dislikes, her dreams. But is anything happening? If not, it’s time to whittle it down to only the most essential descriptive information and back story and begin weaving it in once you find the spot where the real story begins.
How to do that?
Identify your inciting incident (also called the plot catalyst)—the thing that sparks the action and sets your plot in motion. (For a nice overview, read this article.) It’s not that you have to have it on page 1, but it had better happen very early on (it can even happen off-stage, so to speak, before p. 1, especially in mysteries). In The Hobbit, Bilbo didn’t start his journey till p. 34 (of my edition), but he sure knew something was afoot by p. 5, when a big stubborn wizard came to pay him a visit. That was the spark.
The scary part is that in doing this, you may well be faced with a bigger question: do I have a plot that’s strong enough to carry readers through an entire novel? Sometimes writers are disheartened to find that they’ve been writing back story, or simply listing events for the first hundred pages, with no real story arc to connect them. After paring that down to a bit of essential descriptive information, you’re left with only a piece of what you thought was a finished novel. In that case, it’s time to make something compelling happen to these wonderful characters you’ve created—without a strong plot to act as the spine, you’re left with just a bag of rattling bones.
Now to the other end of the writing journey. What could go so wrong with an ending that Chekhov wants us to cross it out?
Well, lots of things, but the one I’ve seen the most in manuscripts over the years is the “race to the finish line.” This is where the writer has set everything up beautifully, the action is about to explode. . . and then you notice there are only five pages left in the book. Even if the right things happen to create a satisfying ending, there simply isn’t room to develop it and get the pacing right. You can’t rush the climax—or the resolution—of your novel.
There’s an easy way to know whether you’ve got it right: ask people. If you have a writing partner, or better yet, a critique group (the more eyes on your manuscript, the better), ask them to be brutally honest about the final pages. Did the ending feel rushed, the writing sparse? And what was their gut reaction to what happened to the characters? A good ending always gets a strong response—be it positive or negative. You’ll never get everyone to like it (every NYT bestseller has a critic or two who hated the ending), but they should always feel something. A lukewarm response means back to the drawing board.
If you see any of these problems, it’s vital to sit down and do the slicing—or the fleshing out—at both ends of your novel, no matter how much you wanted this to be your final draft. It could make all the difference.