Leaning Into a Fictional Döppelganger

I’ve been challenged with the idea that trimming one’s fictions by 10 percent makes them better, not just for readers but for the writer. To experiment with this proposition I selected a random page from the Google Docs version of my long fiction Prop O’Gandhi: the excerpt comes from the seventh chapter called “The Travel Agency.” [You can download the e-book for free here.]

First, the page as written:


…sent word back from the other shore. “First you need the explorers,” reasoned Prop, “then the map-makers, then the innkeepers, and then the travel agencies.”

It is conceivable that Prop O’Gandhi was overly hasty in abandoning the travel agency idea. Couldn’t his hero, the Time Traveler, have arranged passage to and from the year 2547, say, without ever having actually been there himself? The Time Traveler provided the means of transport. He could have built a whole garageful of time machines; he could have hired a crew of mechanics to maintain the machines and a team of outfitters to send people on their way. With the infrastructure in place, The Time Traveler could have sat behind the desk with the phone and the computer, the brochures and the books, and done some business.

What happened was that Prop O’Gandhi realized he didn’t want to be the guy behind the desk after all. He didn’t want to be the guy strapped into the machine, either. He didn’t even want to build the machine. Mostly he wanted to imagine what the machine would do, as well as the general principles by which it would operate. It was clear: if Portalic transport was ever going to take off, Prop O’Gandhi wasn’t the kind of guy who would be there to cash in on the boom. As the tide of public enthusiasm rose, he would grumble to himself, and to his wife of course, about what a sell-out Portalic transport had turned out to be, how it had been totally co-opted by money and success and power, how all the other Realities had gotten absorbed into the mainstream Reality.

Prop probably saw the writing on the wall of his hypothetical travel agency. In fact, this writing also appeared in his Portality Notebook, though he skipped right over that part:

If you open the doors wide enough, people will come through.

A psychologically minded observer might have diagnosed him as suffering from fear of success. That wasn’t likely, since he had relished those rare successes he had experienced in his life. He feared many things, but success wasn’t one of them. The thing was this: what Prop O’Gandhi foresaw as imminent failure, most other people would regard as success. Here again was evidence that he was living in the wrong Reality.

Can you picture Prop O’Gandhi sitting in his Laboratory, which in another Reality is his spare bedroom, envisioning vast networks of interlinked Realities, people riding the Strands from one Reality to the next, an entire travel infrastructure moving everyone along through the Portals? Prop O’Gandhi’s Lab is a room that measures 10 feet by 13 feet, its two small windows looking directly onto the roof of his neighbor’s garage. If he were to peer around the edge of the garage Prop could just see the window of the neighbor’s kitchen, some tall lilac bushes growing up next to the house partially occluding the view. Nonetheless, as he thought about the hypothetical Portalic travel agency, Prop could glimpse the neighbor lady standing in her kitchen. Based on what he watched her doing – chopping and sautéing onions, boiling a big pot of water, opening up a jar of red goo and heating it on the stovetop with the onions – he guessed that she was going to have spaghetti for lunch. He realized he was hungry. He wished she would invite him over for lunch. He could bring a nice bottle of red wine, maybe even a green salad. It was a fine sunny day: they could sit out in her yard, at the picnic table, and run their bare feet through the freshly mown weedless grass.


That’s 610 words — which means I’d need to trim 61 words to cut the length by ten percent. Here I go:


…sent word back from the other shore. “First you need the explorers,” reasoned Prop, “then the map-makers, then the innkeepers, then the travel agencies.”

It is conceivable that Prop O’Gandhi was overly hasty in abandoning the travel agency idea. Couldn’t his hero, the Time Traveler, have arranged passage to and from the year 2547, say, without ever having actually been there himself? The Time Traveler provided the means of transport: he could have built a whole garageful of time machines, hired a crew of mechanics to maintain the machines and a team of outfitters to send people on their way. With the infrastructure in place, The Time Traveler could have sat behind the desk with the phone and the computer, the brochures and the books, and done some business.

But Prop O’Gandhi realized that he didn’t want to be the guy behind the desk after all. Or the guy strapped into the machine either. He didn’t even want to build the machine. Mostly he wanted to imagine what the machine would do and its general operating principles. It was clear: if Portalic transport was ever going to take off, Prop O’Gandhi wasn’t the guy to cash in on the boom. As the tide of public enthusiasm rose, he would grumble to himself, and to his wife of course, about what a sell-out Portalic transport had turned out to be, how all the other Realities had gotten absorbed into the mainstream Reality.

Prop saw the writing on the wall of his hypothetical travel agency — writing that also appeared in his Portality Notebook, though he skipped right over that part:

If you open the doors wide enough, people will come through.

An observer might have diagnosed him as suffering from fear of success. That wasn’t likely, since he had relished those rare successes he’d experienced in his life. He feared many things, but success wasn’t one of them. The thing was this: what Prop O’Gandhi foresaw as imminent failure, most other people would regard as success — more evidence that he was living in the wrong Reality.

Can you picture Prop O’Gandhi sitting in his Laboratory envisioning vast networks of interlinked Realities, an entire travel infrastructure moving everyone along through the Portals from one Reality to the next? Prop O’Gandhi’s Lab is a room that measures 10 by 13 feet, its two small windows looking directly onto the roof of his neighbor’s garage. If he were to peer around the edge of the garage, around the lilac bushes, Prop could just glimpse the neighbor lady standing in her kitchen. Chopping and sautéing onions, boiling a big pot of water, opening up a jar of red goo and heating it on the stovetop with the onions – looks like spaghetti for lunch. Prop realized he was hungry. He wished she would invite him over for lunch. He could bring a nice bottle of red, maybe even a green salad. It was a fine sunny day: they could sit out at her picnic table and run their bare feet through the freshly mown weedless grass.


Okay, that gets the passage down to 511 words. I chopped it by 99 — 37 more than I needed, a reduction of 16 percent! It didn’t take long, and it was fairly painless. No critical information is deleted, no essential meaning is lost; even I can barely notice the differences. Is the leaner alternative version of the fictional text better than the actually existing version? Is it worse? I’ll take it one sentence at a time: deleted words are lined out; added words are italicized.


“First you need the explorers,” reasoned Prop, “then the map-makers, then the innkeepers, and then the travel agencies.”

In this chapter Prop O’Gandhi is thinking about setting up a portalic travel agency. By this point he’s doubting that idea. The alternate realities need to be discovered and charted and made hospitable before the tourist trade can open up. The and in this sentence emphasizes the divide, both temporal and categorical, between the first three professions and the one that Prop is presently considering. The and stays.

The Time Traveler provided the means of transport. He could have built a whole garageful of time machines; he could have hired a crew of mechanics to maintain the machines and a team of outfitters to send people on their way.

The repetition of he could have emphasizes the qualitative distinction between two separate hypothetical moves that the Time Traveler could have made: first, the design and construction of amazing devices like the prototype he’d already made and pilot-tested; second, the mundane managerial task of staffing an ongoing business. The second he could have stays.

What happened was that But Prop O’Gandhi realized he didn’t want to be the guy behind the desk after all. He didn’t want to be Or the guy strapped into the machine, either.

Throughout the book the narrator intercedes with observations, and occasionally critiques, of the titular character. The what happened was accentuates the intrusion of the narrator at this point in Prop O’Gandhi’s ambivalence. It stays. The repetition of he didn’t want to be accentuates Prop’s Bartlebyesque reluctance to act, his sense that none of the options arrayed before him is viable. It stays.

Mostly he wanted to imagine what the machine would do, as well as the and its general operating principles by which it would operate.

As well as emphasizes the distinction between the “what” and the “how” of the machine. The more economically worded operating principles combines pragmatics and theory into a single phrase; in contrast, principles by which it would operate emphasizes theory as foundational to practice. Prop is a theoretical sort of fellow who would insist on that distinction. The original wording stays.

It was clear: if Portalic transport was ever going to take off, Prop O’Gandhi wasn’t the kind of guy who would be there to cash in on the boom.

Prop O’Gandhi is reasoning from abstractions, not from personal preferences: he’s not just the wrong individual; he’s the wrong kind of individual. Who would be there emphasizes both the futurity and the inevitability that someone is going to cash in eventually. The original wording stays.

As the tide of public enthusiasm rose, he would grumble to himself, and to his wife of course, about what a sell-out Portalic transport had turned out to be, how it had been totally co-opted by money and success and power, how all the other Realities had gotten absorbed into the mainstream Reality.

Here’s a case where the shortened version eliminates not just words but an idea. Avoiding capitalist co-optation is a central tenet of Prop O’Gandhi’s project, or perhaps a key cognitive dissonance reducer he invokes to rationalize his loserhood. It stays.

Prop probably saw the writing on the wall of his hypothetical travel agency. In fact, this — writing that also appeared in his Portality Notebook, though he skipped right over that part:

The probably and in fact again signify the narrator’s interpretation. The original stays.

A psychologically minded An observer might have diagnosed him as suffering from fear of success.

The narrator is an observer; here he’s dismissively claiming not to be psychologically minded in his presumably more profound interpretation of O’Gandhi’s inertia. The original stays.

The thing was this: what Prop O’Gandhi foresaw as imminent failure, most other people would regard as success. Here again was — more evidence that he was living in the wrong Reality.

More is a quantifier; here again emphasizes a repetitive pattern. The repetition is the important consideration here, how each episode in the narrative illustrates a consistent pattern in O’Gandhi’s life.

Can you picture Prop O’Gandhi sitting in his Laboratory, which in another Reality is his spare bedroom, envisioning vast networks of interlinked Realities, people riding the Strands from one Reality to the next, an entire travel infrastructure moving everyone along through the Portals from one Reality to the next?

Here again the proposed deletions affect not just nuance but content. Prop is searching for portals to alternate Realities, whereas he’s already straddling two Realities every time he steps into his “Lab.” This chapter begins with a quote from Prop’s Portality Notebook — “A Strand is a link between a Self and a Reality” — so invoking the Strands here embeds this paragraph into the chapter’s framing context. Stick with the original wording.

If he were to peer around the edge of the garage, around the lilac bushes, Prop could just see the window of the neighbor’s kitchen, some tall lilac bushes growing up next to the house partially occluding the view. Nonetheless, as he thought about the hypothetical Portalic travel agency, Prop could glimpse the neighbor lady standing in her kitchen.

Prop doesn’t just happen to see the neighbor lady in her kitchen with a casual glimpse. He has to peer through his window, around obstacles blocking his view, into her window — voyeurism. Though he’s purportedly hard at work in his Lab, he finds himself distracted by what, and who, is outside. The original wording accentuates Prop’s unconscious urge.

Based on what he watched her doing – chopping and sautéing onions, boiling a big pot of water, opening up a jar of red goo and heating it on the stovetop with the onions – he guessed that she was going to have looks like spaghetti for lunch.

The watching and the guessing — indicators of Prop’s intensifying distraction — are at least as important as the neighbor lady’s meal prep. Stick with the original.

He could bring a nice bottle of red wine, maybe even a green salad. It was a fine sunny day: they could sit out in her yard, at the her picnic table, and run their bare feet through the freshly mown weedless grass.

Dropping the wine from the bottle of red seems almost too casually cool for Prop’s nerdy asocial persona. In her yard establishes a lush feminine sensuality for the bare feet in the green grass. Keep the original wording.


In each pairwise comparison I’ve opted to keep the original wordier wording. A psychologically minded observer might diagnose me as suffering from effort justification, preferring the weightier (fatter?) creation to its leaner döppelganger. Of course this isn’t the only way to strip ten percent of the skin off a cat. I could get rid of this whole Travel Agency chapter. I could scrap the intrusive observations of the narrator, letting the reader do the work. Why do I get the feeling that I won’t be the sort of guy to make those streamlining improvements either?

 

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One thought on “Leaning Into a Fictional Döppelganger

  1. I found the original draft of this page from O’Gandhi, written on 2 June 2004. A few words have been deleted here, a few more added there, but overall the two versions are nearly identical. The biggest change is in this string of two consecutive sentences. First the current version…

    A psychologically minded observer might have diagnosed him as suffering from fear of success. That wasn’t likely, since he had relished those rare successes he had experienced in his life.

    and now the original version…

    You might think that Prop O’Gandhi feared success. That wasn’t likely, since he had so rarely (in his opinion) actually experienced success.

    I didn’t want the narrator ever to address the reader directly, so I got rid of the “you might think.” And I wanted to emphasize that O’Gandhi had enjoyed his successes.

    This is the usual case with my writing: the final edited version tends to hew pretty closely to the first draft. Unlike what I’ve read about how some other fiction writers go about their business, I tend to edit as I go along rather than dumping a lot of words onto the screen and fixing them up later. What did change from the original draft is the larger textual context in which this page is embedded — I think I’ll write about that in a follow-up post.

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