Derrick Boden’s fiction has appeared in numerous online and print venues including Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Compelling Science Fiction. To date, he has participated in four Odyssey online workshops and is always looking forward to the next. He is a writer, a software developer, a father, and an adventurer. He currently calls New Orleans his home, although he’s lived in thirteen cities spanning four continents. Find him at derrickboden.com.
I’m a workshop junkie, which means I’ve stockpiled a metric ton of writing notes over the years. Scribbled on the backs of hotel business cards, jotted in the margins of conference brochures, hammered into my laptop keyboard. And like any self-respecting workshop junkie, after each session I promise myself that I’ll review my notes regularly, once a month—no, twice!—and use them as a foundation for my future writing success.
It’s a nice thought.
Occasionally, though, it does happen: I stumble across a kernel of knowledge that sticks with me. I look back on those notes a few months later, then again a few months after that. I jot it down on a Post-It, stick it to my monitor. Eventually, without any deliberate effort, I find that it has infiltrated every aspect of my writing process. I wonder: how did I ever write without this one thing?
The answer, I’m sure, is poorly.
Take for example the controlling idea, first revealed to me by Barbara Ashford in her Odyssey online workshop “Getting the Big Picture.” Barbara’s workshop came packed with a trove of invaluable advice and tricks that I could immediately put to use in my writing. By far the biggest boon for me, though, was the controlling idea—in particular, the way Barbara conveyed this concept both in theory and in practice. It has become so helpful to me that I’ve permanently integrated it into my revision process, and every story I’ve written since has seen improvement as a result.
I like to call it the revision machete.
Here’s the scenario: you’ve squeezed every ounce of blood and grit and wit into producing a story packed with multidimensional characters, a gripping conflict, deeply extrapolated world-building, and heart-wrenching emotional resonance. You’ve tidied it up and sent it off to a critique group, only to discover that everyone has summarily missed the point. Rather than commenting on the story’s thematic impact, they seem to have overlooked the theme altogether. Instead of suggesting ways to make the ending more powerful, they wonder, aloud, What exactly are you trying to say? They tell you the story is too slow, too long. They tell you it didn’t win them over.
It’s a sensation not unlike chewing glass. If you’ve never experienced it, I envy you. I also don’t believe you. I’ve experienced it plenty of times myself, such as with my story “My Hooks Within You.” It’s a grisly alien/parasite love story that—in its first iteration—clearly missed the mark based on its initial reception from my critique group. But what was there not to like?
When a reader misses the point, it’s easy to write that reaction off as an impatient read. This is rarely the case. And when a reader says a story is too slow or too long, the tendency—for me, at least—is to think: I just need to cut some flab. Tighten it up. Break out the scalpel. Slice some adverbs, transplant some clauses, excise the slow parts.
The solution, sadly, is rarely this simple. Here’s why.
Cutting words for the sake of shortening a piece can leave you with a trough of stilted, unnatural-sounding prose. You also risk losing the allure of the voice that you worked so hard to imbue into the narrative. And by cutting everything unnecessary to the plot’s progression, you end up with nothing but the plot itself—which rarely equates to a compelling story in itself.
But most importantly, trimming adverbs and clauses rarely solves a story’s underlying pacing problem. The story is shorter, yes, but it still feels slow. If you find this to be the case, you’re using the wrong tool. Rather than a scalpel, what you need is a machete. More painful, more effective. You might need to lop off some details that you’re particularly fond of. Slash entire scenes, perhaps. Hack apart your favorite character (metaphorically, at least).
Of course there’s more to it than that. The first step is knowing what to cut, and why. Not to shorten the story, but to focus it.
Here’s where Barbara Ashford’s workshop saves the day: by providing the grinding wheel to sharpen your machete. In her “Getting the Big Picture” online course, she introduces the concepts of promise (from Bill Johnson’s book, A Story is a Promise) and controlling idea (from Robert McKee’s Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting) in a way that makes them immediately accessible for every writer at every level of experience.
According to Bill Johnson, “A story’s promise speaks directly to the issue of human need that a story explores. It offers a reason for an audience to enter into a story’s world.” Robert McKee’s controlling idea conveys a similar concept, but slightly more complex: every story has a value (the thing that changes in the story, the promise) and a cause (the reason why things have changed). Making sure the story has a concise value and cause, and making sure everything in the story works to further those elements, can be seen as a fundamental goal of storytelling.
Defining a story’s promise or controlling idea isn’t always easy, but like most things, practice is the key. In Barbara’s workshop you’ll gain plenty of experience through your own writing, the works of your peers, and published works—all of which serve to hone this valuable skill. I’ve found it so useful, in fact, that I’ll oftentimes challenge myself to identify the controlling idea for books and movies I’ve recently finished, just to keep in shape.
As you might guess, promise and controlling idea are helpful concepts to consider during brainstorming, outlining, and writing. But regardless of how you write (with or without an outline), there are always times when you aren’t quite sure what the story is really about until you’ve written the last word. Sometimes you may realize that, during the course of writing, that about-ness has evolved into something completely different. And in still other cases, you may find that you’ve reached the end and still don’t know what the story is really about.
This is where Barbara’s discussions on controlling idea really punch the ticket, for me: revision. Before I even think about rewriting or rearranging or culling a draft, first I must identify the story’s controlling idea. What value has changed, and what caused that change? Then—and only then—am I ready to unleash the machete.
This controlling idea becomes my guide for clearing a path through the jungle. I look at every scene, every character, every plot beat, every world-building detail, and ask: how does this further the story’s controlling idea? How does it relate either to the value or the cause of change? Characters that I thought would ratchet the tension by harassing the protagonist, might only have served to distract the reader. World-building details that I thought would add complexity and depth, may have only muddied the story’s focus. Just like details that are ancillary to the plot, details that don’t relate to the controlling idea have a tendency to pull the reader out of the story. They make the scenes feel sluggish. They cause the reader to miss the point.
I realized, after all that chewing of glass, that this is what I’d gotten wrong in “My Hooks Within You.” It wasn’t that the story was too long or didn’t have a point—it was that all these other details were getting in the way of that point, and at the same time slowing the story down. So I identified the controlling idea, and I broke out the machete. The end result wasn’t significantly shorter than it had been, but it was more focused. The editors at Aliterate agreed and picked up the story for their Spring 2018 issue.
Since then, I’ve used these concepts for all my revisions, and I have no intention of stopping. The controlling idea is an incredibly efficient, logical, and reliable means of identifying what should and shouldn’t be cut from a work of fiction. And there’s no better place to master it than Barbara Ashford’s Odyssey online workshop. You’ll get all the education, experience, and feedback you need to perfect this skill—and many others. So go submit your application already. You’ll be a better writer for it.
Barbara Ashford’s online course “Getting the Big Picture: The Key to Revising your Novel” will be offered in January-February 2019 through the Odyssey Writing Workshop, application deadline December 4.
For Barbara’s description of revising using “big picture” concepts, check out our previous blog post, “Don’t Lose Sight of the Big Picture” by Barbara Ashford.