Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stuff my (Writing) Students Say, Part III

I hear some variation of this, again and again, usually when a class is working on revisions (translation: always) --

“I think I’ve been too married to my words -- once they were written down it felt wasteful not to use them.”

Anyone relate?

I think at various times all writers feel this way. After all, the words in the notebook or on the page or screen represent our investments in time and mental exertion. Whether we dash off fast first drafts, or laboriously craft a second (or 22nd) draft, what we have to show for it is just that – words. Is it any wonder why we cherish them so?

And yet – so often those words simply must go. We discover (sometimes with the help of an editor, writer friend or teacher) that they just don’t work, for a very specific reason, or for a thousand reasons.

And yet. We try our best to hold on to them. By the time we’ve written and read and reread them a few dozen times, those words, those dark marks on a light background, seem far more than mere arrangements of shapes and sounds. Suddenly, those words are it. The words – instead of the vision or the idea or the concept, theme, or STORY – become the piece, rather than serving the writer as she creates the piece.

But they don’t work.

And so they must go.

Where? Anywhere but in the piece where we at first thought they were such a perfect fit. A separate computer file folder marked “extra material”. A notebook you can label as “overflow” or even – think about it --“possibilities for future work.” One writer I know fills an empty dresser drawer with hard copies of any “good stuff” that’s had to be culled; he randomly tosses in the pages (some with only a few sentences on them), and every couple of months he sifts through in search of new (again) ideas. Another stockpiles it all in a fat three-ring binder, separated by tabs for various themes she returns to again and again in her work.

Don’t throw those words away, in any case. What writer alive can’t point to something edited out of one piece which one way or another led to another, perhaps even more important, piece of future work? If this hasn’t happened to you yet, maybe you’ve been a little too married to those not-quite-right original words. Divorce them please.


Unknown said...

"Kill your darlings" or uh, save them for later at least. I always keep an out-takes file for scenes and bits I cut. Usually, by the third draft, I've found that most of this stuff is never going to find a use (I'm a terrible over-writer). Larger components I've sliced out: characters and plot threads sometimes grow into an interesting side story.

But yes, I can get terribly attached. I'm still smarting at a scene I had to cut this morning. I loved it when I wrote it, and in the first draft it worked; but now that I'm in tightening the bolts mode it's just creating too much drag on the novel's pace. These kind of cuts make the put it away for a while rule invaluable. You need some distance from your marriage to those words to see if they're working.

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

I keep a folder called Outtakes, and I've learned to listen to the spider sense that says 'this doesn't belong here'. So I take the offending passage out, telling myself it's just an experiment and the result of that experiment might be that the passage goes back in... Mostly it doesn't, but I keep it in the Outtakes file - and then not using it doesn't seem so bad.

Also, I do often find that Outtakes from one part of the book are actually rather useful in another. For instance, when I've overdone an info-dump while introducing a character.

So not everything that has been cut has to be discarded.