Last week, I stayed in a friend’s unfurnished cabin. I had a fridge, cooking utensils, and simple food to last a few days, but no TV, no internet, and no snacks. Worst of all, no chocolate.
Just me, my laptop, and a hardcopy of my second draft.
And wow did I uncover some hard truths about my writing!
The first eight pages are dribble. Hey, wait a minute, that’s not fair. Let’s back up a bit here. I already re-worked Acts 1 and 2 a couple of weeks ago. They’re almost ready for final review. Those first two Acts are my best work ever. This lock-up-in-remote-location is only to address Acts 3 and 4.
So, back to the dribble. Normally, I might think about it—by staring at the garden, making a quick snack, watching a bit of tv (for research purposes). Yeah. Like that works.
But this time, I had none of those distractions to assist me.
This time I had to make a hard decision. How? By finally learning an old lesson.
Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
I’ve just never been able to make it work for me. Does it include minor characters? Minor plot lines? World-building?
That’s when I had my breakthrough: by coming at it from the other end.
I asked myself instead why do I need this scene?
It made all the difference. It got me thinking about what I was hoping to achieve by writing this story. (Apart from writerly success of course.)
My answer surprised myself: I want a good story to read. I don’t want to challenge beliefs, or make people think a certain way, or any way.
Nor do I want something that pleases everybody because that just pleases nobody. And it must be funny. And filled with hope. No preaching, no touting, and definitely no lecturing.
No pressure, Lou.
So, armed with a new question and a picture of the endgame in mind, I tried again.
Why do I need this 8-page scene? It advances the plot, it reveals character, it’s a key scene in the ultimate storyline. But those bits I thought were funny? Preachy, passive and forced. No wonder it was dribble.
It took two hours, but I slashed it.
And before I knew it, I was cutting scenes and words and phrases that should have been cut long ago, and the story became tighter and more interesting.
I’d been hanging on to way more than I knew, but I finally found the way to make one lesson from a master work for me and become second nature.
(Now I better take a new look at Acts One and Two – and brace myself.)
In the meantime because I found so few examples to help me recognise my own dribble, I’m going to bare my soul right here and share some of the conversations I’ve had with myself in this re-draft (did I mention I was alone in this cabin?).
Maybe someone else will find these helpful, and together we can keep producing great books to read.
My characters can’t count.
Why do you need this trait?
– I don’t know—I thought I could have some fun with that.
Does it help the main character, or the main plot?
– No, in fact I’m getting really stuck and it’s causing stupid repetition and other problems. The joke has worn thin, even on me.
My characters have different terminology for the time of day than we do.
What? Why on earth?
– Well, because, why would it be the same as us humans? How could it be?
Is that making it easy to read?
– Err…not in the slightest.
Oh they also have different terminology for—doesn’t matter. I’m kind of embarrassed about that one now.
Terminology deleted and best forgotten.
I have a really long description of an intricate device.
Does the description need to be that long?
– Yes. The device is central to the plot and the MC’s growth.
No, I asked you if the description needs to be that long.
– Oh. Yes. I put a lot of effort into it. I mean a lot. And the research was intense.
So you’re writing to impress your readers with your research skills?
My characters talk about their butts a lot.
Ok. That can be funny.
– It’s really funny actually, and remember, my characters are animals, so it’s natural.
You sound like you’re defending yourself – how much are we actually talking about here?
Butts thrashed (told you it was funny).
I have a lot of funny footnotes ¹
A lot? Doesn’t that stop being funny after a while?
– Noooo ²
Are they subtle?
– I’m defending myself again, aren’t I? ³
I hope my honesty and the taking of my own mickey is helpful to someone else out there. Tell me what you think, or better yet, share some of your own embarrassing truths (your writing truths people).
¹ Really funny
² Hilariously funny
³ The story is much better without them