Kill your darlings

Sometimes it’s not how many words you write, it’s how many you cut.

Now, there’s no doubt about it: it feels more fulfilling–and it’s more fun–to rack up big word counts of shiny new words. 1,000 words written? Yeah, not bad. 1,500? Right on. 2,000 or more? Now we’re talking’! But writing is more than churning stuff out. Writing also means revising and editing, rewriting and proof reading. And it means cutting.

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A lot of red ink. Some rewriting, a few word changes, but mostly just hacking out stuff that was slowing the story down.

Today was all about the cutting. Over the last few weeks I’ve taken a break from my novel to work on some short stories–to clear my head, get a little perspective, and have some fun whipping out some stuff I can finish in short order. One of them I drafted  entirely in longhand before typing it up, which was a nice breather away from the computer. Going through it a few times now, I’ve managed to hack out 450 words (about 5% of the total) and I hope to cut at least that much more. Already it’s leaner, tighter–and better. Sometimes less really is more.

Not to get overly spiritual, but–actually, let me just dive right in: this is a spiritual thing. In the Gospel of John,  Jesus compares himself to a vine, his disciples to branches of the vine, and God the Father to the gardener. He says that God prunes the branches that bear fruit so that they will be even more fruitful. He prunes the good ones, the fruitful ones.

Whether it’s a story or our lives, pruning means cutting away at good stuff so it will be even better. And it’s not easy. With the story, it means cutting away stuff I spent time on. A lot of time. Stuff I like. Stuff that I think is pretty well written–but that needs to go so that the whole piece will be better. (It’s called “killing your darlings” here in the land of writing.)

The same is true of our lives. More isn’t always better. Trying to do everything usually means not doing anything very well. “A mile wide and an inch deep” isn’t a good thing. We have to be willing to be pruned (probably in lots of ways).

The pruning of my story isn’t done. I’ll be doing another round of it tomorrow, trying to get those next 500 words cut. It’s not going to be easy; after all, pruning well is pretty much just as hard as getting the words down to begin with. But the pages are printed–and the red pen is ready.

In case you were wondering…

What’s the most popular post so far here at A Year with Mona? I know you’ve been dying to know. Well, here’s a roundup of the top five.

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Far and away the most popular (and most shared on Facebook) is “Mugging on the Metro“–the story of the time I saw a guy snatch a woman’s cell phone right out of her hands and flee the scene.

A distant second is “This is the end…” An account of my progress with writing the end of my novel and how to make endings work in general. This one’s a bit of surprise, really: after a handful of reads when I wrote it last December, now this post, far more than any other, gets consistently read (or at least opened). Almost every day, people search for “the end,” and end up here.

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Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read, Part 3

The final installment in my series about the essential kinds of writing books for writers.

The Caffeinated Writer

Part 3: The Life of Writing

The life of writing isn’t like a job where you clock in and clock out. Sure, if you’re a journalist, but not if you’re writing fiction. If a day goes by and you don’t write a single word, there’s no one to dock your pay.

So now, the final book you need in your regular reading diet as a writer: something about actually living the writing life. Because, guess what? Just focusing on the writing itself isn’t enough. Unless your goal is to finish your novel and stick it in a drawer. Or if you don’t actually care about finishing. Or if you just want to dabble, if writing is just a hobby. But if you want to get your writing out into the world and reach readers, you’ll need to do more. And you’ll need a guide. In The Art of War for…

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Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read, Part 2

Today: Part Two of my series “Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read” featured at The Caffeinated Writer.

The Caffeinated Writer

Part 2: The Art of Writing

It’s sad but true: you can craft grammatically perfect prose, turn a nice phrase, and even come up with an insightful metaphor or two—and still write forgettable fiction. How many books feature the same stock characters and predictable plots? Or worse: unbelievable characters and clunky, hole-ridden plots? So, if you’re going to write, if you’re going to pour your time, your energy, your life into a world that doesn’t even actually exist—if you’re willing to do all that—why not make your writing the best it can possibly be?

In my last post, I featured a wonderful little book on the craft of writing, The Elements of Eloquence. It drills down deep into phrases, sentences, and rhetoric. Today, we look at the second kind of book that should be a part of every writer’s reading diet: a book on the art of writing…

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Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read, Part 1

Today, part one of my series “Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read” was featured at The Caffeinated Writer. Enjoy!

The Caffeinated Writer

Part 1: The Craft of Writing

What’s the most important rule of writing a novel? Get your butt in the chair and write. Got that? Good. But what’s next? What will take you from hack to Hemingway? Here’s an idea: read.

Read the kinds of things you want to write, of course. Then read things thataren’tlike what you want to write. Read classics. Read poetry. (I’ve heard that Ray Bradbury read poetry every day. Reading his work, I believe it.)

But if you really want to write, then make sure you read books abouthowto write, and how tobea writer. And then read them again. While there’s no shortage of writing advice out there on the internet, do yourself—and your readers—a favor and dig a little deeper. Make these three kinds of writing books a part of your regular reading diet:

  • A book aboutthe…

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Someday

Locks on doors.
Metal detectors and security sweeps.
Evacuations, manhunts, and bomb squads.

This is our world. But someday…

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The Eiffel Tower lit up in the colors of Belgium after the terrorist attacks on Brussels on 22 March 2016.

Someday wars will cease, someday terror will be no more.
Someday locks will be forgotten, metal detectors left to the scrap heap.
Someday.

“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
Someday.
“Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
Someday.

Someday, words of hope
written to those who wondered what hope they could have
will no longer be merely words,
no longer simply hope
no longer just a beautiful dream of some far-off future,
but will literally be
true:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
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Every tear… wiped away,
Someday.
No more death or mourning, crying or pain,
No more terror or fear or wondering what will blow up next.

Someday.
When the old order of things has passed away.

* * *

You can read about our experience of the night of the Paris attacks last November here and my visit to the Bataclan memorial here. When I started this blog, I didn’t imagine I’d be writing this much about terrorism. But this is the world we live in.

 

How much are you willing to work for it?

Supposedly George Frideric Handel wrote “The Messiah” in just over three weeks. Mozart could whip out a minuet over coffee, hand it over to a creditor and thereby take care of his debts. And some composer whose name I’ve forgotten apparently would write out orchestral pieces one entire part at a time—the flute part, beginning to end; then the oboe; the clarinet; and so on down through the brass, percussion and strings—since he had the entire thing worked out in his head!

These are the kind of stories I heard when I was studying music composition in college (back in a prior millennium).

Amazing, right? Apocryphal? Perhaps; although it seems pretty well established that Handel did write the Messiah in an incredibly fast burst of creativity. And there’s no doubt that Mozart was phenomenally productive in his 36 years on earth.

But truthfully, these kinds of stories may have done me more harm than good. I can’t relate to such seemingly superhuman creative output. How many of us can? These stories further the idea that creativity is magical, or effortless, or perhaps entirely the province of god-like geniuses.

But it’s not. Sure, there are geniuses out there, and sure, for some creativity does come easier. But stories of exceptional creativity held up as anything but that—exceptional—serve only to distract from the reality of what any significant endeavor requires: hard work, perseverance, and sweat.

The day you realize it’s time to start over

Since December, I’ve been working on a new draft of the final act of my novel, and much of it is coming together well. But the last few weeks have been spent on a critical passage that sets up the climax, and I’ve started having serious doubts about it: Some pieces were feeling a bit contrived. Some character motivations didn’t truly make sense. And a critical incident didn’t seem entirely logical, believable… or even physically possible.

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So it was time for a conference with one of my go-to writing critique partners. That’s right, my thirteen-year-old daughter, Carolyn. Her credentials? Poet. Short story writer. Lyricist. If I’d written as much as she has back when I was her age, I’d no doubt be a better writer now. But no time for regrets, it’s time for a consultation.

It was just the two of us one night, so I asked what she wanted to do. She suggested we go to the fancy Starbucks and write. Well, twist my arm! After an hour or so of writing, we headed over to Breakfast in America for burgers and to talk over our respective works-in-progress.

When it was my turn, I laid out the situation of the scene I’ve been concerned about. As soon as I got to the critical moment, she looked at me and said, “Oh, this is what’s going to happen, right?” and proceeded to predict precisely where the painfully predictable scene was going.

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The final lap

A wise man said, “Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.” The point being? If you wait for perfect conditions, you will wait… and wait… and wait…. and never get started.

I’ve had people ask me, do you wait for inspiration strike before you write? My answer: do you wait for inspiration to strike before you go to work?

This week seemed like perfect conditions for writing: a week to myself in the city of Hemingway, the fridge fully stocked, no shortage of coffee, and plenty of cafés and coffee shops to choose from. I set my goal–15,000 words, 3,000 words a day–and set to work.

The curve ball I didn’t see coming: feeling pretty lousy for half the week. Suddenly conditions were no longer perfect. Who cares that it’s Paris, I don’t even want to go outside!

I was hoping to get a lot of writing done in the mornings. It didn’t work out that way; instead I ended up writing through the afternoon (usually my least creative time) and well into the evening.

I wanted to try new places in Paris and get back to some others I hadn’t been to in a while. That didn’t really work out either. Who wants to sit in a café–or a library–hacking and coughing and generally being a public health hazard?

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Here’s one of the libraries I didn’t go to… Maybe next week.

So it didn’t go like I’d imagined. But it did go, I got through it, made it to the end, made my goal. And what was the result? Too much to describe here (it would take about 15,000 words…), but some good progress… and some utter junk.

Like the parts that were just filler words; literally writing things like: “Oh here’s an idea… etc. etc.” or “I need to rethink this part” or “This character needs to…” Some of it was lists of ideas (most of them dumb) until I got to the one that worked.

And that’s okay. I’ve read plenty of articles on how to free write where the encouragement is given to just put the pen to the paper (or fingers on the keys) and start writing, even if it’s just “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write.” Because as you keep writing, keep typing, eventually words that start to make sense start hitting the page. It really works.

So, the Audacious Writing Week is in the books. Tomorrow is another day. And I’ll be writing.

 

Ignoring the voice that says, “Quit”

Well. I thought yesterday was a challenge… but sometimes things get harder before they get easier! Used a tree’s worth of kleenex today. Fought off a persistent headache with some big guns. And believe me, if I hadn’t set myself a writing goal, it would have been movies on the couch all day long. As it was, I only left the apartment to go for a short walk this evening to get some fresh air. (And chanced upon some good breakdancers doing their thing at the Trocadéro across from the Eiffel Tower.)

 

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Sorry, this isn’t from the Trocadéro, but I didn’t take any pictures tonight. Hope you don’t mind.

Let me tell you, the excuses and rationalizations were nipping at my heels all day. You’re 200 words OVER your goal for the week–that means you can quit with fewer words today. Or heck, just quit whenever you want and make it up tomorrow… You’ve done enough, call it a day…

But I made it. And discovered things about the plot, my characters, and the world they live in that I never would have if I hadn’t spent so much time with them today.

And even wrote 250 more words than I was aiming for.