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.

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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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5,000 words…

Today, I wrote a little over a thousand words–right around 1,100–cut around 300, and worked up descriptions of three new characters.I know, I know, Stephen King writes 1,500 words before breakfast, but that guy is a machine. I’m happy with what I got done; after all, it’s a complicated scene involving nine different characters who are busy arguing, accusing, threatening, and rationalizing; some literally (and figuratively) in the shadows, others in the light; some wielding power, some weilding just a flashlight; some under threat and one in dire physical straits.

So, for this post, I’ll let the pictures do the talking. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then here are 5,000.

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Candles in Saint-Sulpice.

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Saint-Sulpice: the second biggest church in Paris

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The number 6 line.

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Paris: old and new.

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I never get tired of this.

A day in the life of revising a manuscript

November is NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. But while literally thousands of intrepid novelists are well on their way to their goal of 50,000 words, I’m neck-deep in the midst of revising the novel I started plotting in the fall of 2014.

I wonder if this is what it feels like to shoot a film. Hours of footage that have to be crafted into a coherent story. Endless editing of scenes to get them down to their essence. Cutting other scenes entirely. Realizing that even with all that’s been done, new scenes still need to be shot. Then going over it all again. And again.

In the last few months I’ve radically reconfigured my opening at least twice. Probably three times… maybe more! A pivotal moment at the end of the first act has been surgically removed and transported to its new home in the middle of the novel–as well as transposed to an entirely new physical location in the story, and most of the characters involved have been cut from the scene. So: pretty much a total rewrite. (Deep breath.) But not today.

I’ll pull back the curtain and give you a peak at what two cups of coffee and three hours at Coutume Café near Napoleon’s Tomb got me this morning (actually, this work carried over into lunch and then into yet another cup of coffee back home):

  • I gave one of my characters an addiction. Another one finally got a name—at least a provisional one (it’s a character I only started developing when I started revising the first draft).
  • I wrote yet another page of longhand notes on the what the main character is like.
  • Since writing a novel always means coming up against one’s own limited knowledge base, I compiled a list of questions related to astronomy, communication and satellite technology, etc. that I need to send off to a smart person.
  • Other tasks are mundane, but necessary to keep everything straight: I added a bunch of internal headings, not to be included in the final product, but to help me keep track of where all the pieces are.
  • I picked a few of the new scenes I’ve come up with that need to be added and started outlining them.
  • And, joy of joys, I actually even wrote actual words in actual scenes.

Revising isn’t for the faint of heart. But it’s worth it. Want to know more? Check out this fantastic post by Beth Hill at The Editor’s Blog for a great overview of how and why to revise.

As she says, “One small change can create the need for cascading changes throughout a manuscript.” Don’t I know it!