Tuesday, May 28, 2013


A Little Goes a Long Way

About a year ago a friend asked for my feedback on a new story she wrote. Writers do this with each other, and the luckiest of us have beta-readers who are not writers also.

I think highly of this friend’s storytelling abilities. An afternoon with her is a magical ride on a roller-coaster of laughter punctuated by vistas that leave me feeling I have just seen something deeply beautiful, that thing called wisdom.

I was eager to read her written story. She warned me ahead of time that she was “not a writer” and that she “ran out of steam writing it down” and thus it might be “too short.” With this introduction I was even more eager to do all I can to boost her writing confidence.  

But right off the bat this tale-telling was a mess. The first page of a six-page story contained the introduction of not one-two-three-four-five characters, mentioned by name. There were nine (I counted) energetic beings fluttering about saying this and that to each other. Or maybe they were talking to themselves? Who could hear anything with all that noise?
It occurred to me that one of the things we do when we write is to discipline and structure. A great storyteller does this also, but in a more casual way. If you tell a story orally and mention a whole host of cousins and their best friends, then never get back to them, it is atmospheric and gives a sense of a large gathering. If you write of a myriad of cousins and their friends, whether you get back to them or not, it is an overcrowded mess.

I made the same mistake with my written stories in my earlier writing, though nine characters on the first page was not a record I achieved.

Too many ingredients don’t make a better dish.

I read her story to the end. There was a story there. That was the good news. Good storytellers know what a story is and what it isn’t. But it needed some real work, beginning with a clean up of the overcrowded entryway.

I felt like the parent who came home to her teen’s rumpus party, and had to yell, “Party’s over!” and disperse the crowd.

Luckily my friend is as wise as she is earnest in trying to figure out the best way to discipline the tale. She not only did a face-palm and exclaimed that my observation was spot-on. The second draft looked nothing like the first. My friend is on her way to surpass anything I've ever done in writing.
This post is a happy-ending story


  1. What a great story. ;) Kudos to you for finding a way to encourage your friend but to also tell her what needed to be said to improve her craft. And kudos to your friend for internalizing the criticism and becoming a better writer for it.

  2. So wonderful that you were able to advise your friend and she was able to *accept* your advice and learn from it!

  3. That's great that she was willing to listen to you and make the story into something that worked. :)

  4. What wonderful advice! And such a great happy ending! Very impressive that your friend was able to take your very thoughtful advice and do a substantive revision based on it. Congrats to both of you!

  5. That was a heartwarming story with a true happy ending. You are a good friend to give such advice. I've had roomfuls of opening characters also...I had to show them the door!

  6. A happy ending indeed! A good writing buddy is worth her weight in gold!

  7. I agree....a great happy ending. What a good friend you are! I've had a few stories where several of the characters had to hit the door...not enough room in the inn!

  8. Never have I read the advice "don't open with too many characters" put so well and entertained me so thoroughly.

  9. Yes, a wonderful happy ending! Thank you for your very wise post, Mirka. We all need to be reminded from time to time that "too many ingredients don't make a better dish." What a smart way to put it! = )

  10. Please excuse the double comments...that pesky Open ID is just acting wild with my Wordpress

    1. I don't mind overcrowding ;) the comments section with yours, Helen :)

  11. Great advice. If there are too many characters, I always feel overwhelmed.

  12. first drafts are always the hardest. but you've got to write them in order to revise!

  13. Glad to know this story had a happy ending w/no more character soup! =)

  14. I'm so glad that what could have been a sticky situation with your friend worked out so well.