Sunday, May 1, 2011

Kill your babies

So I've spent the last week writing a scene I've been planning from word-one.

The scene involved a character introduced at the very beginning as a fun throwback to remind you of where we came from. She wasn't particularly important... but it was a fun marriage between the beginning of the book and the end of the book - and quite literally too.

I've been trying to write this scene for days, but as you can see from my title, I've decided to cut it. I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss what it's like to have to cut something you've held on to for so long... in homage, let's name him Charlie

Charlie took place in act 3. He was a scene about Cat, our main character, running into a woman named Isolde who we meet on the road to Fire Town. It ends up she's married a man who is the father of another character we meet in the second half. At their house Cat gets a disguise and a strategy for how to sneak into the Endgame, which will take place dangerously soon.

Charlie's first warning signs came with the inkling... the inkling that perhaps he was extraneous. I don't know how many others share this internal klaxon, but it's what I call the "library book sense" and it lives in the back of my head near the base where my spine connects. I get this sensation when it's about time for things to happen - like returning movies, paying bills or, of course, killing literary babies. Charlie started going on too long... I'd gotten to the point where it was supposed to be stressful and exciting, but instead it was feeling like a chore - like the book knew it needed to be doing other things right now, and that was the first sign that it either needed a rewrite or a purge. I'd planned too long to put this scene in the book, there was no way I'd purge it now!

So Charlie went to imagination therapy. This led to sign number two - character knowledge vs. plot requirement. I solved a large part of the prewriting problems by sending Cat in to meet these people by herself because there's no way she'd drag her four Curses into a dangerous Brushcaster-infested town with her for a menial task (delivering a letter) so I decided to send her in alone, something she might actually agree with. I presented her the situation and she started arguing with me. I even had the mysterious and powerful Joshua show up and tell her to go but she still didn't want to. Joshua doesn't fight with me, he does whatever I say. Eventually he basically told Cat "The Author wants you to go to this town, I'll carry you there." and she begrudgingly agreed but still thought it was a bad idea. It's times like these that you should listen to your characters, Cat had far more valid arguments than against following my plan than I did expecting her to follow.   Before rewriting the scene again, Charlie needed to be put though one last test.

It's the last-chance hazardous and highly difficult Double-Column-Graph test. I start with a blank piece of paper (usually in one of my idea notebooks) and draw a line vertical through the middle and put Positive on one side and Negative on the other. As you can figure, the two columns are for all the good points of making a choice and all the bad. The question was "Should Charlie go?"

Positives in favor of axing Charlie: 1, it keeps Cat and the Curses together, 2, It will add speed when there is speed and make room for another slow scene later when it might fit better, 3, Cat doesn't want to go and it makes sense not to, 4, I can eliminate this slack thread i've woven though the book.

Negatives resulting if Charlie is axed: 1, I don't get to use this recurring character, 2, We don't get to see the inside of Astonage.

There are obviously more positives than negatives in my graph, but that's not what necessarily what makes a successful graph test; sometimes there might be one point in the positive or negative panel that tips the graph in its favor even if it's the only thing in there. A great example was when I was thinking of getting rid of a trip to Joshua's house - originally the place was just a well of backstory that was stop and sit in for a couple chapters. This setup was awful and counter-productive, so the question came up about whether or not it should be removed. I gave it the graph test and realized that the value of going there (for reasons I won't mention) far outweighed any benefit we'd receive by skipping it, so instead of obeying the positive column I reorganized and reworked the whole latter half of the story to make it fit better with great success.

The second major red flag I got from the chart was the fact that everything in the Negative column was related to ME. *I* wanted to keep Isolde because *I* wrote her that way. *I* wanted to see Astonage because we haven't been there before. Cat didn't care, she didn't know a disguise and a solution to the problem was waiting for them inside the town, all she knew was that it was dangerous and a totally illogical course of action. A novel is supposed to be a slice of the characters' lives, the minute the reader sees the author in the draft they've left the narrative... don't do things out of character, it's poor form!

The decision was clear. I had to abandon Charlie to the junk pile. The lesson to be learned is; just because it's in the outline doesn't mean that time and evolution can't change circumstances and even if you've planned and provided for something in the beginning, the STORY is what counts. Listen to your draft, listen to your characters, don't force something just because YOU want it seen. Snip Charlie off, store him in your Graveyard/Grab-bag file and proceed without him.

Sometimes you have to kill your babies, but you can name them if it makes you feel better.

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