1.23.2020

All the Build-up

A writer’s determination to concentrate on the page at hand results in torrents or dribbles of words, depending on the writing session. The erratic flow stems from the ability to tap into the subconscious. We all know that the impulses of the id defy logic, which helps to explain why authors need to edit their text. What we thought was gold at the moment of madly typing may turn out to be the dross of a not-so-good writing day.

Now let’s pair this well-known phenomenon with the momentous task of filling hundreds of pages. The writer’s confidence in striking gold tends to produce spurts of text. A eureka-like impulse can lead, after mulling over the idea, to a decision to turn the novel in that direction, however briefly. For instance, to help explain why a normal businessperson would investigate a murder, you decide to include a background story on the bullying of a younger sister.

The story emerges into view, and the writer sets off, hiking stick in hand, to explore it in sufficient details to make the point ring true. What was conceived of as a paragraph, or maybe two, mushrooms into a page or two. It is needed, you judge, because it just took that long to explain the motivations and the circumstances of how the bullying occurred.

At a later point, however, you read over that chapter. You’re more distant from the heat of writing, and you feel a discomfort that the chapter has bogged down so much. You look at the background story and realize it’s too long—but now you’re stuck. It does explain why the protagonist would go to such extraordinary lengths for vengeance. You wrote a tight background piece—no fluff, the thing moves at a good narrative summary pace. You can’t see a way to trim it any more than it already is.

You are at the second stage of regulating the impulses of the id. You thought you had tamed them while writing the piece. Yet you have to consider the number of words needed to set up a plot point. You can gauge whether to keep a point by examining how many are needed to set it up. Ask the question: is the impact of the point worth all the words?

You are exercising, on a larger scale, the judgment you used to make the hundreds of smaller cuts you’ve already made. If the piece sticks out for too long, considering the purpose it serves, it has to be excised. You made a bigger mistake, that’s all.

Exercise: You can accomplish the same purpose by other means. If you made a larger decision—oh, it’s the sister who should be killed—you wouldn’t need the long back story. Or, you write a scene in the present in which she is bullied—with the hero actively trying to help. Now it’s not a drag on the story at all.

“The main engagement of the writer is towards truthfulness; therefore he must keep his mind and his judgement free.”
—Gabrielle Roy

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine



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