When Words Have to Die

One of the most difficult tasks we have as writers is editing our work.  When you are developing your writing skills, as a fledgling or accomplished writer, almost any article, book, or lecture on writing emphasizes the need to “cut”.  Here are some examples:

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
Dr. Seuss

“If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”                                                 Ernest Hemingway

“Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”           Mark Twain

“There’s a great power in words, if you don’t hitch too many of them together.”                                                                                          Josh Billings

And a favorite of mine is a story Stephen King relates in On Writing. As a young writer, he worked for John Gould, American humorist, essayist, columnist, and author.  A piece of advice that Gould gave King was, “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” That is a question I carry with me as I’m writing and editing, “Is this part of the story?”

But it is harder than you think.  After struggling to get our “brilliant” ideas into our story, we are convinced that every word is germane to a successful read.  That is until we run it by our critique group, editor, agent, whatever and then the dreaded, “you should cut this out…” remark slaps us into reality. The “edit out” dagger pierces our sensitive little writer’s heart and we are sure it isn’t possible to cut those brilliantly scribed pieces. But if we’re smart, we listen.

I think the process is so difficult because those words may be some of the best writing we’ve done. The imagery is beyond lovely, the character is stoic, the humor is perfect so how can we cut it out? Well, it may be all that but as Mr. Gould advised, they are not the story.

For me, I sweep all of those pieces I think are so brilliantly done into a little junk folder rather than the grave.  I pull them out occasionally and see if I’m writing anything where they may be part of the story. I don’t kill them off, I just put them to rest and hope that some day, they’ll find a home.

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Characters

When I read a book, if it is a good one, I fall in love with the characters. We all do. We even begin to care about the bad guys. When the book ends, I don’t want to leave those folks I’ve gotten to know through the author’s ability to bring them to life.

Now that I’m being a better “good girl” writer and actually writing on a daily basis,  I’m realizing that I get the same pleasure from my characters who develop along with the story.

I’ve always felt guilty because I don’t do character studies, at least  not in an organized way. I don’t have a card file with descriptions of characters and locales. I don’t have character sheets and even on my Scrivener, I’m not using the character sheet template.  (Dear Nuns of my elementary and high school lives would recall that I also was terrible with completing outlines for my writing.) I’ve come to realize, however, that there is a file box tucked somewhere in my grey matter. As a great observer of people, risking being arrested as a stalker, I can watch people for hours. In a restaurant, I eagerly try to hear their conversations. Watching people while at the beach, I note the variety of shapes, sizes, etc. of their physique and the bathing gear they use to enhance (or not) those physiques. Looking at two people having a conversation that I can’t hear, I make up stories in my mind of what is going on based on body language. So, it’s not that I don’t pay attention to character traits, I just don’t do what many how to write sources suggest I do with developing a character study.

I find that my characters develop with the story. When I begin a story, I have a situation or general plot in mind. Kind of like backwards design in teaching, I know where I want to be at the end of the story. I have a general idea of who the main characters are, but many of the details emerge as they travel through the storyline. Minor characters are even less defined as we begin our adventure together. An example follows:

Currently I’m working on a fiction story about Queen Guenever (of Camelot) when she was a young girl. In the story an unlikely friendship develops between her and Emma who is the complete opposite in position, manner, dress, and certainly grace. The story could be called historical fiction but I’m afraid it isn’t quite. To begin with, it’s hard to gather actual facts on the Arthurian period that in itself seems to be mostly fiction. Also, the time of the story would be at the very beginning of the middle ages. I find very little information of that time, or at least information that would make my story more interesting. For example, castles weren’t what I was lead to believe as I read and watched all those books, plays (I loved “Camelot”), and movies. They were more like earthen and wooden rather than huge and stone structures. So, for the sake of my story, I’ve pushed Guenever and Emma into the middle/later periods of the Middle Ages.

Anyway, back to my point. I wanted a very minor character to be Guenever’s teacher. In truth, she probably wouldn’t have had one but my story needed her to have one. There are many choices for a character like that: old, wise, young, handsome, brilliant, snobbish. Other than being a male, he had very little definition in my mind. I began by going to my reference sheets (which I can conveniently store on my Scrivener) that contain first and sur names that would be common during the middle ages. I spent a good half an hour or more playing around with various combinations. I finally landed on one that screamed to me, “I am that teacher character.” The name?  It’s Umfrey Urry.  Isn’t that delicious? It was a name that could thoroughly confuse Emma and immediately shaped his looks and manner for me. As I introduced him to the story, he came alive, in his snobbish dead-pan way. He makes Gurenever, Emma, and myself laugh – behind his back, of course.

I will continue to seek out advice about how to write from as many sources as I have time to find. What I’m learning, though, is that there is no cookie cutter “how to write”. Our approach to writing has to be the one that works for us. I can try the suggestions I come across but in the end I have to find the ones that work for me. As you know, my current mentor is Stephen King through his book, On Writing. I was pleased to read his take on character development and especially resonated with this statement, “For me, what happens to characters as the story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along…” That works for me.

I’m not a published writer, at least not in the way that some folks I’ve met in writing groups consider “published”. I’ve been called a “hobby writer” which is okay. I have a number of educational works that were published and a chapter in a book. I have my fiction work in group publications like Hoosier Horizons and the Edge of the Prairie. That’s it. But I am a committed writer. As I wrote about in a previous blog, I write because I can. I write because I enjoy the adventures my characters and I experience. I write because I love my characters.

Back Again

I’ve been put to shame.  Last weekend, I had the privilege of judging entries in flash fiction for the the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. The program, almost a hundred years in existence, solicits and awards the efforts of young writers and artists in seventh through twelfth grades. Some notables who were recognized throughout the program’s history are:

  • Truman Capote (1932)
  • Andy Warhol (ca. 1945)
  • Sylvia Plath (1947)
  • And even Robert Redford (1954) and Zac Posen (1998)

While a range of student writing abilities were observed, I was blown away by many of the entries. These young people demonstrated an incredible talent for building a compelling story within the constraints of flash fiction. Their skill and creativity assures me a number of them will provide me with reading companions in a not too distant future.

Why am I ashamed? Well, they most certainly devoted a significant amount of time to writing in order to produce the fine work that they did. I do not.

I am reminded everywhere that if I want to write, I have to devote the time to writing. Stephen King’s On Writing bluntly tells me that if I don’t give the time – then don’t write; among many good tips I’m given in my critique groups, from Bob M. among others, I’m nagged about not making the time for writing; and every little webinar or article I read chastises me for my lack of commitment to the time needed to build this craft. I’m amazed at how I can ignore all of that and fall back on my well stocked hoard of excuses.

After all, I have spent most of my adult life making those excuses

1)  When I was raising kids on my own and working full-time: “I want to write but when am I supposed to find the time?”

2)  When my kids were older and I was working full-time: “I write all the time, scenarios for my students’ science investigations, education journal articles,… Just when am I going to get time for creative writing for me?”

3)  My kids are raised, I’m retired working part-time: “I want to write but I have this big house that’s a mess. When am I supposed to have time to write?

Well, let’s see:

1)  Think:

JK Rowling  and  Mary Higgins Clark

2)  Think :

         Ayn Rand – a tour guide and movie extra among other things;

         F. Scott Fitzgerald – wrote slogans for trolley car placards and fixed roofs of train cars 

         J.D. Salinger – failed at being an apprentice in a Polish slaughter house (so he could go into the family business).  He came back to America and worked as an activities director on a Caribbean cruise line.

3)   Really?  Take a look around – I still see a big mess.

Recently, on-line, I read an article by  Joseph Finder*, a prolific writer and author of The Fine Art of Feedback. The title of the article?  Just Write the Damned Book Already.

“Okay, Joseph, I hear ya’,” Judy said hopefully.

(Sorry, Mr. King, about the adverb. But I did say “said” instead of “acquiesced”. Can I get points for that?)

* I enjoyed this article, you may, too. Go to:  
http://www.josephfinder.com/writers/tips/just-write-the-damned-book-already/