Meaningless Numbers; Meaningful Pans and Stabby Things

Screenshot of word processor word count, showing 30,265 wordsI cannot overemphasize how meaningless word count is at this stage of this project. Ordinarily, due to my aversion to complete sentences during rough drafts, doubling the rough-draft word count is a fairly accurate reflection of the finished product, and I can juggle the numbers for rough and projected and anticipated length and know that I’m a third of the way through or whatever. Thanks to those first several scenes that got final-draft treatment for a contest entry, the math no longer works at all. Plus, I put the rough epilogue in this file already, so there’s no longer a fair measure of consecutive progress, and I’ve been leaving myself notes of the “don’t forget the hydro plant” and “maybe the curse works on that thing that way because it’s ALIVE” variety, which are going to get deleted eventually and don’t even count as real words.

So the number is meaningless, but behold how it grows!

Hmm, what meaningful words can I write about this week’s meaningless words? I finished a huge environmental exploration scene, so setting is jumping out at me again. 

One “trick” of describing settings is to give personal significance to objects the character chooses to surround herself with. For example, instead of grabbing a generic baking pan from the cupboard, she uses a warped, scratched aluminum relic that has to be lined with foil because it looks like food should never come in contact with it, but it’s been handed down through four generations of her family. 

An ancient aluminum baking pan with the finish scoured off and the metal warped

That allows you to use a prop in the setting to give a little bit of information about the character’s backstory and what’s important to her in a way that feels organic rather than making her spontaneously announce,  “I AM PROUD OF MY FAMILY BAKING TRADITIONS!” *

Don’t do this for every object, obviously, or you’ll end up with a poorly disguised backstory infodump with setting details stuck on it like googly eyes. Typical setting advice is to pick three details vivid enough to ground the reader in the place for the duration of the scene. If you’re going to make any of them a personally significant detail (not every setting needs them), more than one at a time is likely overkill.

NOTE: There are many things in writing you don’t neeeeeeeeed. Nobody will notice the absence. No reviewer is going to say, “It’s too bad the author missed the opportunity to show us the protagonist’s generational relationships via bakeware.” But in my old age, I’ve become obsessed with resonance. Can stories be told without that quality? All the damn time! But when writers pluck seemingly insignificant threads until the whole story vibrates and it all comes together in a crescendo, I’m wowed by their craft. At a certain point, wowing yourself becomes the ultimate objective, so you take the time to do things you don’t neeeeeeeeed.

The challenge with this particular story is that Heroine owns none of the spaces she’s in and has no say in how they’re decorated. She starts with all of her worldly possessions fitting in saddlebags, and then she leaves those behind and proceeds with only what’s in her pockets, which is all utility, no sentiment.

In order to show that she existed in the world before I plopped her onto page 1, I have to access her memories through other people’s stuff. Here, she’s poking around the long-abandoned playroom of a bratty prince:

On the floor, as if flung against the wall, was a short sword. He’d been old enough to graduate from wood to steel, but she could tell from the way light struck the edge he hadn’t been trusted with anything sharper than a pencil.

[Heroine] had trained with a similar sword when she first entered [Mentor]’s service. The city length designed for freer movement in narrow alleys and stairwells functioned equally well for developing a child’s arm strength and technique.

She was never given a blunted blade. Learning she’d be left to die if she lopped off her own leg was a crucial part of her education.

(Character names redacted for public consumption because they’re likely to change before publication and the less I have to correct myself later, the better. Also, standard note about work in progress being a mess because it has never known the touch of an editor.)

She doesn’t dwell on it. There’s no flashback to a decades-old training montage. She sees a child’s sword, compares and contrasts it with her own childhood experience with a sword, and gets on with her search. It doesn’t take long, it doesn’t change the plot, but you get a better idea that she is the way she is in part because apprentice assassins don’t get a ton of emotional support.

Also, while it’s apparent from her overall observations about the state of the room that she doesn’t have a super high opinion of the young prince, she never muses that she was smarter and stronger and more deserving, and she doesn’t wallow in self-pity because Little Heroine didn’t get enough hugs and toys. The things you choose not to put on the page likewise reveal information about character, even if the reader doesn’t give them much thought because you can’t call attention to your invisible choices.

* I have zero sentimental attachment to this cursed object (and its 13×9 sibling) and would gladly buy a new $10 light nonstick aluminum pan, but in my current living arrangement, that would look just as wretched as the one pictured in about a week because people here love their KNIVES and DISHWASHERS, and the property destruction would upset me more than whatever kind of poisoning risk this pan has time traveled from the Great Depression to bestow. Which, of course, tells a different sort of story about the setting…

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