Bewildering Stories

Change the text color to: White  Purple  Dark Red  Red  Green  Cyan  Blue  Navy  Black

Change the background color to: White  Beige  Light Yellow  Light Grey  Aqua  Midnight Blue

Kevin Ahearn

On writing novels today

Challenge 88 gives a practical, rule-of-thumb definition of the novel. In this letter, Kevin Ahearn talks in general terms about his experiences as a literary agent and the style expected of novelists today. One of your editors looks at the matter sub specie æternitatis and proposes a practical strategy for both writing and literary criticism.


I've read countless queries and manuscripts, but have yet to read one that has become a worthwhile or moneymaking novel. What's the problem? Doesn't anybody out there know how to write? That's a lousy attitude and I refuse to be cynical or pessimistic, but there is a trend I see over and over again.

Think of the typical manuscript as a tall gin and tonic on the rocks with a twist of lemon in a classic crystal glass. The gin is the finest, the tonic first-rate and the ice is spring water frozen into perfect cubes topped with a lemon slice fresh from the tree. There's a rub here? Some "editorial bartending" is desperately needed. First off, lose the lemon and get rid of the ice. Next drain the tonic. Pour the remaining gin into a pot, bring it to a boil until all the water is steamed off. What's left is a novel.

What I'm not saying is that all novels should be short, but that all must tell the story, the whole story and nothing but the story. What's missing from so many submissions is not talent or style or ambition, but confidence. Over and over again, the writer tells me what I already know as if he or she didn't think it was written clearly enough first time around. This kills a work. "My manuscript has been professionally edited," too many of them read and the "experienced" editor has corrected any typos and fixed all grammar gaffes and straightened out an awkward sentence here and there. So what! A manuscript is not some term paper or college report.

An editor must be a ruthless SOB who will cut anything and everything that doesn't tell the story. "No matter how well a chapter, a paragraph or a character may be written," wrote Vonnegut," if it isn't part of the story, get rid of it!" Put another way, rewriting is like packing for a cross-country bicycle trip: "I'm pedaling this page, sentence and word all the way to California?" Wrote Strunk and White: "Make every word tell." Of course, after reading my own work, you may have come to the conclusion that I'm full of BS. Truth be told, most aspiring writers are and editors are even worse!

Kevin Ahearn
NetPub Corporation
675 Dutchess Turnpike
Poughkeepsie, NY 12603

Disclaimer: since this discussion takes place in the context of Challenge 88, it’s important to add that Julian Lawler need not infer from it that his Prophet of Dreams contains too many words that “don’t tell the story.” Rather, the novel has appeared in our issues in what amounts to outline form, and the Challenge implies the question “What is the story?”

About the economy of words: it is very difficult to make things simple. None other than Blaise Pascal summed it up in an aphorism for the ages, about 350 years ago. Freely translated: “This letter is so long only because I didn’t have the time to write a shorter one.”

The culture of Japan is based on an economy of space; North American culture, on an economy of time. And the economy of time makes a big trade-off: one can do a lot in a hurry, but haste makes waste. Quantity and time trump quality.

You can see the effects of the economy of time in the length of novels. In the 17th and 18th centuries, long novels were the rule, and short ones were notable exceptions. The great European novelists of the 19th century typically wrote shorter works that are still long by today’s standards, because the economy of time had not yet fully shaped the culture of the emerging Industrial Age. And yet their genius seems all the greater today because they knew all about “making every word count.”

It’s possible to make an analogy between the word and the work. On average, the English language is two-thirds redundant. Let’s try that again: On average, the English language is two-thirds redundant. That sentence is only five-eighths redundant, but you get the idea. Language can’t function without redundancy. Do novels need it? Not everything in a novel will have equal importance, of course, but everything ought to tie together.

Apply a simple critical test: remove or change a word, sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter or character. How have you affected the meaning of the work?

If one’s style resists deletions and changes, it is very likely good, even excellent. To achieve greatness, use it to say something that people will remember 350 years from now.

Copyright © 2004 by Kevin Ahearn and Bewildering Stories

Please share your ideas with us!

Return to the Readers’ Guide
Return to the issue index

Home Page