Back to the Future

Legends have been spun about authors who write hundreds of pages that don’t end up in the actual book. That sounds like a nice ideal, but really, how much extra time do you have in your day? I’d like to suggest a more targeted approach, based on that page of general notes about Len. 

Let’s take getting thrown down the stairs as a child. You can, of course, write out that scene—a five-page flashback that makes your hair stand up. Yet what will help you know Len better comes from the framing circumstances of that incident. In the first place, why Len? The psychological literature shows that usually only one family member is chosen by an abuser. So why Len? Does he have siblings? What are their ages in respect to him? How does the father’s abuse of him affect their feelings for him? Why does his mother allow it to happen? 

You can see how many questions can be generated simply from that one incident. Now we’ll break it down further. Let’s say that you decided Len is the oldest in a family of three. In your experience, what is an oldest child like? Bossy or introspective? Does what you think about an oldest child align with how your protagonist acts? No? Maybe he acts more like the fourth child lost in a brood of six. What is your own personal experience of feeling passed over by your parents in favor of another child? 

Now, you see, Len is no longer an abstract notion. Feeling passed over by your parents hurts. You could write a page just describing what a pair of selfish jerks they are because they always gave Bobby the biggest Christmas present. Can you focus on one incident like that where you really wanted recognition that never came?

A page of general notes can be multiplied into 20 pages of detailed explorations. Are you wasting valuable time? Not to my way of thinking. Just consider this fact: you will wait months for a literary agent to pick you up and then more months for a publishing house to buy the book. If they turn it down for the hoariest of all rejection letter reasons—“I didn’t fall in love with the character”—you may wish you had spent more time exploring at the start.

Exercise: Focus on one note, such as that staircase incident. Don’t write about the action: the pain of the tailbone, the scraped wrist, the broken arm. You’re trying to go deeper into the psychological scar. What led up to that attack? What happened as a consequence? What turning point in Len’s life occurred that night? Isn’t that why you’re bothering to write about it in the first place?

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