Friday, July 12, 2019

Writing, Construction and Legos

Writing a story is similar to any other kind of manufacturing, but then come the weird parts. The initial process is know the abstract parts of the story - plot, characters, mood and motif, etc. - and fill in those in with a bunch of words shaped into sentences that fill in those spots. It's an arduous process of construction, but at the end, you have your story. Then it gets a little weird, because what you have is your first draft. As we know, first drafts can be considerably different than final drafts.

Intuitively, when we think about building something, we think about constantly making progress toward the final product. Overhauling it midway doesn't seem right. Would we build a house, then as the drywall is going up, say, "Actually, let's switch the master bathroom to the other side of the hallway, take out the dividing wall in the kitchen, and move the fireplace to the back room"? If your contractor has a sense of humor, you two will share a laugh. Maybe you'll just get laughed at. Whatever the case, that fireplace is staying right where they put it.

Our story, however, can change as much as we want. It has the constructive flexibility of a box full of Legos, and we should take advantage of that. We should change things, try things, write different scenes just to see how they work, and whatever else we feel might help. We just pour those Legos on the floor and sort through them to make whatever we want.

However, the difficult part is when we remove them.

Again - it's counter-intuitive. We wouldn't tell our contractor to remove a bedroom, and we feel the same way about our words; perhaps even more so. But some authors will tell you that 10-20% of a manuscript  is removed between the first and the final drafts. And all those thousands of words are ones you will have painstakingly created and placed into what felt like just the perfect place. They made sense. They were perfect. Why did they have to go?

This blog has discussed several categories of words that are useless. Those are easy to trim out. The tough ones are the good ones that just don't contribute. We all write great descriptions and entertaining narratives that make us smile on the inside, and it's heartbreaking to see them not make the final cut. This, however, is what we have to do, and it helps to have a guideline or two to tell us when it's time for something to go.

Write a one-paragraph description of something ordinary - say, a minivan. With a little passion, we can write about the shine, smooth lines, and the showiness that makes it stand out, and have a nice paragraph. However, in the context of the story, is it important? Does it contribute to the plot? Or maybe it hits the wrong points, placing all the emphasis on the high-gloss paint job, but ignoring the back-window stickers showing Mom, her two daughters, a dog, a cat, and a husband whose sticker is scraped off with a butterknife. The image of the minivan is pleasant reading, but the sticker section tells us so much more.

The first response might be to use them both. Give the reader a nice description and leave the sticker bit to contribute to the story. That's always an option that we have as writers, but sometimes it works against us. A very strong descriptive sentence will get lost mixed in with four others that don't have the same impact. If those other lines can't help carry the point, they threaten to bury the point. That's when we look at all that passionate description of the car body and say, "Nothing personal. You're good words, just not for this page."

Taking this approach - honing and refining our descriptions and narratives to make the point stand out - makes our stories vivid and appealing, and showcases our storytelling as well as our writing. By the proper reduction, we actually end up with more story.

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