Joe’s Post #101
Throwing Sh*t Away
I have a problem with this. A big time problem. I can always think of a use for something or something is tied to a memory or something is put away for so long that it just becomes a part of the landscape. Like the broken wheelbarrel rusting in my backyard. I greatly fear that one day I’ll be featured on the hoarders, a 500 lb lumpy writer surrounded by tattered writing books, empty Cheetos bags and crumpled up rejection letters.
But, as in life, in writing you have to throw stuff away. Sometimes it’s a word. Sometimes it’s a chapter. Sometimes a whole novel.
That’s what I spent my writing time doing this week. Tossing out what doesn’t work and writing lovely new words.
As a new writer, long ago, when the world was new and crusty-looking crabs ruled the world, I couldn’t throw away anything. A chapter? Get real! A whole novel? Are you insane?
Now, older, creakier, greyer, I know that I can toss stuff out and – are you ready for this – come up with new stuff. Even good stuff. It’s not a small glass I sip from, it’s a well tied to an aquifer, tied to monsoon, tied to a planet that’s 2/3rds water.
Now I’m not saying that I’m David Sedaris or Stephen King or that lady who wrote that book about that thing, no, I’m not any of them. They all have massive talent. I’m more of a workhorse writer. I couldn’t come up with a purdy phrase if my life depended on it. But what I hope I do, like Patterson, is craft a good story. Or, let me put that another way, I want to be like Patterson and craft a great story.
To do that, you have to kill your darlings.
It’s a phrase we hear a lot in writing workshops or read on writing blogs and writer’s tombs.
So here are some of the signs you have to look for if you’re going to find those darlings (or broken, rusty wheelbarrows in your yard).
Do you have a minor character that you fell in love with and who took the story in a whole different direction than planned? Hey, it’s ok. Maybe they’ll become your main character. Or, like GRR Martin, you just write 100 books with 1000 pages each. But if you have a story to tell and that handsome rogue hijacked it, stake him to the ground, and bring him out only to serve the plot.
Too many pretty phrases or long descriptions? The hardest things to cut out sometimes. Why? Because by and large our critique groups like them and other writers like them and, like, we often don’t get compliments so when someone says, omg, that’s so beautiful, you’re gonna want to keep it. If you’re writing a literary book, hey, keep it, but we all have to remember it’s the readers, not college creative writing professors who’ll be reading it. Know your target audience and apply descriptions according. A romance? Avoid detailed, but brilliantly written descriptions of torture and dismemberment. Focus on the hero’s pecs, how his body shimmered in the moonlight and how his eyes looked at the girl.
Something’s not working and you just can’t put your finger on it? You know what I’m talking about. It’s that inner voice telling you something’s off. Sure you can try to fix it, make it better, somehow, maybe move a comma here or delete a word there, but if it’s a struggle, come at it, again. Start new. I’m talking paragraphs, scenes, chapters, whatever. Listen to that inner voice. Not the Gollum one that says everything you write is crap, no, spank that one and stake it to the ground beside the rogue, no the voice that says, hmmm, yeah, not working. Change location, change POV, change starting or ending point, change style, change anything and everything and see what shakes loose.
If you find yourself skipping, then what are your readers going to do? It could be a whole chapter about the hero’s dog taking a poo. It meant something to you when you wrote it, but now it’s just a dog taking a poo. It’s a neat little story, maybe, but if you skip over it when you read your manuscript, cut it out. Lean it out. You want to keep yourself entertained.
The main thing is, don’t be afraid of tossing something out. You actually get better and better the more you write.
Don’t believe me?
Go back and look at writing you did years ago. Writing that you thought was super awesome and full of such brilliant words that they should not only buy the book but sell it with a gold cover and fireworks. I bet you you’ll find a lot of stuff you could do improve upon. There might be some lovely descriptions, some penetrating insights into the human condition, a handsome rogue somewhere and a side story about a dog taking a poo, but if you tossed out the whole thing, you could do it all again, and maybe even better.
At least that’s what I’ve learned.
Now, I have to go deal with that wheelbarrow.