Rewrites: Knowing what to throw away – and what to keep

“Every gambler knows/that the secret to surviving/is knowing what to throw away/and knowing what to keep . . .” – Kenny Rogers, ‘The Gambler’ 

This is a line from Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler.” The song is about a young gambler who meets up with an old gambler, who gives him some sage advice about life before dying on the train bound for nowhere. A very cheery song.

But, just as the young gambler ‘found an ace that I could keep’ in that advice, maybe we can, too.

As writers, we also have to know what to throw away and what to keep. Rewrites abound with these choices. We’ve all read books – especially debut novels – where we think hmm, couldn’t that line or paragraph or entire chapter have been cut without doing anything to the book? And in truth, we’re probably right.

Of course, when it’s you in the writer’s seat, and it’s your baby you’r taking a red pen to, those choices are much harder to make! Once someone – a beta reader, perhaps – suggests, ever so gently, that perhaps this paragraph could be cut because .  . . we tend to instantly launch into defense mode. Truthfully? We know they’re probably right. But admitting that is so hard!

It’s really hard to know what to throw away. I’ve been working on that dratted middle part of my novel for the past week, rearranging scenes, editing others for tension and pace, and yes, cutting some entirely.

Oooh. Yeah. I hear the gasps. What do you mean, you cut? Lines? Oh, my goodness. How could you do that? Wait. You cut – gasp! – scenes? (Horrified silence that drags out . . .)

Yup. Scenes. Entire ones.

How do you know if things need to be cut? Well, if you’re like me, you spend 9 years – off and on – making small edits and revisions and hearing a little voice inside telling you that something’s Not Quite Right, but being unwilling to make the hard choices because that will mean Armageddon.

Let’s think about that little voice for a second.

We are writers. We are readers. At least, we’d better be. We know when something feels ‘off.’ We may not be able to pinpoint precisely what that is, but we know it, deep down. There’s a little hesitation when we read certain paragraphs. We gloss over some sentences, unwilling to look them in the eye. We frown over the transitions from one scene to another, or one chapter to another. We scrunch up our faces at character motives and don’t even get me started on how much we dread reading some dialogue! That’s the little voice writers have. It doesn’t magically appear. It’s developed over time, as we write, edit, read, write, edit, read, write . . . We get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, what our voice sounds like, when we’re imitating others.

In short, listen to the freaking little voice. You may not know what’s going on exactly, but stick a Post-It note on that page anyway. Put a frowny face on it. Just remind yourself that Here Be Something To Work On. Because that little voice? It’s there for a reason. It’s there to tell you how to make your novel better.

Another thing to keep in mind is the issue I’m having right now:  scenes that no longer fit. What do you do when you’ve revised and edited, and suddenly that pivotal scene in the middle, the one that once changed the entire thing for your characters, isn’t needed anymore? This is what I did to myself. I had a scene that – okay, let’s be honest. I knew it didn’t work. I knew it was out of character for my MC, Erin, and I knew my other MC, Kai, would never ever in a million years NEVER let her do that. But it didn’t matter. I couldn’t let it go.

And then I made some major changes earlier in the novel, and that scene is now . . . not necessary. So I cut it from the new draft. It just never got copied and pasted over. I’m still wrestling with whether this is good or not!

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2But. Here’s the thing:  if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t belong in your novel.

For a long time I considered this scene sacred, integral to the novel (yes, despite my misgivings about it!). But here’s a sad fact:  if the scene doesn’t go in, it won’t matter. Seriously. It won’t matter to the novel at all.

 (At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I’m not entirely convinced.)

There are other reasons to jettison paragraphs or entire scenes. One is simply that it doesn’t move the story forward. It might be pretty. It might be some of the best writing you’ve ever done. Does it add to the story in any meaningful way? Does it provide for character development, plot twists, new information? If not – let it go. Or, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch put it,

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (On the Art of Writing, 1916).

Or, if you prefer the great Stephen King:

“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)” (On Writing) 

Or, you’d rather, Kurt Vonnegut:

“Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” — (How to Use the Power of the Printed Word)

(And please remember:  just because you don’t use it in THIS novel doesn’t mean you can’t rework it for another one! Nothing we write is every truly gone. Plus, your future readers will never know it used to be there. All they’ll notice is the nice, tight pacing, the flow from one scene to the next, the rapid plot development.)

Another reason is parallel to the one I mentioned above – after you’ve revised, you suddenly have a scene that just doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe your character’s motivations have changed. Maybe you’ve added – or deleted – a character. Whatever the reason, it’s just not necessary anymore. Take heart in the fact that you recognize this, and you’re ready to make the sacrifice for the novel’s greater good!

So if you’ve had paragraphs that you felt were extraneous, or lines of dialogue that don’t go anywhere, or even entire scenes that don’t work anymore, don’t be afraid to cut those bad boys right out of there. Cut them! Do it! Now!

Doesn’t that feel empowering? Scary, yes, but empowering?

Now do one more thing:  save your novel as an entirely new file. And do this every single time you make major revisions and cuts to your manuscript. I just spent about two hours trying to find an old scene that got cut, and now I need again. I was able to find it because I save my novels as new files all the time. No recreating it from memory. It just needs some tweaking to slide right into place.

This way, you can throw things away – and keep them.

 

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From the Author’s POV: “Killing Albert Berch”

Almost all families have secrets.

Sometimes, those secrets are ‘open’ – everyone knows about them, and that’s that. Sometimes, they’re hidden – the grandchildren or great-grandchildren may learn about them accidentally, but all evidence has been destroyed and they’re left with a handful of rumors and not much else. And sometimes, the secret isn’t as much a secret, as a mystery. 

berchThis is the case with Dr. Alan Hollingsworth book, Killing Albert Berch. 

I had the chance to go see Dr. Hollingsworth yesterday at Watermark Books in Wichita. In large part, I wanted to go because the era and subject matter are shared by my YA work in progress (1920s, race relations), and because it’s a nonfiction historical, and therefore has a lot in common with my work on the disappearance of George Kimmel. But also because I think as an aspiring writer, I should go see as many authors as I can. You never know when that one moment might spark an idea or answer a question.

Growing up, Hollingsworth had always heard the story that his grandfather was murdered. It was his grandmother’s obsession, trying to bring the murderers to justice while remaining safe. When she died, it became his mother’s obsession – and in turn, it became his.

What Hollingsworth knew of the murder was little more than some scant facts. Albert Berch was only 30 when he died. He and his wife Lula owned a hotel in Marlow, OK. In 1923, Berch hired a black porter, Robert Johnigan, for the hotel – an experiment which lasted only a few short days. Marlow, like many towns in Oklahoma at the time, was a ‘sundown town’ – no Negroes could be in the city limits after dark. These towns even had signs on the outskirts of town as ‘friendly reminders’ of the rule. And like many towns across the country, Marlow had a sizable Klan population. So the family’s belief was that Berch had been killed for daring to hire a black man, and that Robert Johnigan had been killed simply for being a black man.

And until Hollingsworth’s mom died, that was as far as it ever really went.

After her death, Hollingsworth and his family returned to Marlow for a short visit, and went to the local museum, where they found an entire scrapbook about the murder. (Notice the similarity here with Killers of the Flower Moon? Never bypass the chance to go to museums!) From there, Hollingsworth spent every weekend researching.

Of course, as a historian, I’m always fascinated by the research methodologies. For Hollingsworth, some of it was really easy – he and his sisters found a box in their attic marked “Murder Memorabilia,” which included their grandmother’s research notes, interviews she’d done with suspected murderers, and letters. I wish I could be that lucky with Kimmel!

And then – tucked away at the bottom of the box – Hollingsworth found something that made him stop.

I asked him if there was a moment when it all became real to him, when he reached a point of no return. Because I had that, when I found the “Missing” poster for George Kimmel. A moment where the world stops and you realize that this thing you’ve chased for years, is real. Hollingsworth smiled, and held up a 1920s collar and black necktie – the things he found at the bottom of the Murder box. There was a note with them, in his grandmother’s handwriting, saying that this was the last collar and necktie Al Berch ever wore. “I was alone in the house,” he said. “It was eerie.” He pointed to a faint stamp inside the collar. “I saw the size stamped here, 15 1/2, and I thought – this can’t be his. Then I realized that I, too, had worn a size 15 1/2 in my thirties.”

So sure. Finding an entire box marked “Murder Memorabilia” sounds great! But Hollingsworth found that this was only the tip of the iceberg. Men were put on trial for the murder; he knew it. He had the case numbers. But he couldn’t locate them anywhere. A friend finally found them languishing in the courthouse at Oklahoma City, where they had been sent for an appeal, and then never sent back. That gave him a thousand pages to work with. And of course, though the trial transcript answered some questions, it raised many more.

Hollingsworth was frank about the reactions of the descendants, and his interaction – and lack thereof – with them. Marlow is still home to many of the families who were involved, directly and indirectly, with the murders. At first, Hollingsworth had a ‘point person’ in Marlow who acted as an intermediary – though after some time, she backed away from the position. It took longer to find Johnigan’s family – in fact, not until the book was nearly done did Hollingsworth find a post on Ancestry.com, asking about murders that had occurred in Marlow, Oklahoma. That person turned out to be a family member of the porter.

Hollingsworth feels that he has answered the questions his grandmother and mother always had about the murder. He feels confident that he knows who the mastermind behind the murders was, and that the mystery can be laid to rest.

 

http://www.killingalbertberch.com/ – the official site for the book

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/killing-albert-berch-alan-berch-hollingsworth/1125579111#/

A Tale of Three Authors

In the last month, I’ve been to see three best-selling authors at our local independent bookseller:  Lisa See, Sue Monk Kidd, and Deborah Harkness. Each provided a unique view of their writing process, and how and where they get inspiration.

Lisa See is the author of among others – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, On Gold Mountain, and her latest, China Dolls. She talked about her family’s history – she herself is the descendant of Chinese immigrants, something she has been researching and discovering her entire life. This has greatly influenced the books she’s written. Her discussion of her family’s history, and the things she discovered while researching her books, was fascinating! She’s read newspaper archives and talked with people who lived through that time – in fact, her most fascinating story was about the time she was able to meet with the woman who actually gave the Mai Tai its name. 🙂

She starts with an idea about the relationship she wants to write about. Then, she chooses the best setting and era, and starts the research. She’s traveled across the world for her research, and made it clear that no matter where you think the story’s going, or what you think it will contain, the research is really the thing that dictates that! She often finds things that absolutely MUST go into the story – either because they’re too interesting to leave out, or because they will actually influence the plot or the characters in some way. Since she writes historical fiction, this is absolutely necessary. She also said she researches right up through the copyediting phase, just in case.

The takeaway quote from Lisa See:  Art is the heartbeat of the artist.

Sue Monk Kidd probably needs no introduction:  The Mermaid Chair, Traveling with Pomegranates, The Secret Life of Bees, and her latest, The Invention of Wings, a historical novel set during the early- to mid-19th century. Like many authors, Kidd takes inspiration from all kinds of places:  for Wings, it was a museum display of women who were historically significant.

One thing she discussed was her love of Joseph Campbell and his ‘hero’s quest.’ Your hero starts in the normal, everyday world – and then Something Happens. The call to action comes. Whether it’s Gandalf coming to find Frodo, or a girl realizing her life’s work is to help end slavery, there is a call to action. The hero’s journey is then about how they finish that quest, and whether or not they are successful.

For Kidd, it’s clear that being an author is still almost something of a novelty, despite numerous best-sellers. She told a story about when one of her novels was published, and at the bookstore, someone came up to her and said, “I think this is the best book of the year! But hey, it’s only February.” Kidd laughed, and said, “Having written a book is all about perspective, and you get a lot of help keeping that perspective!”

When someone asked her why she returned to certain topics, like race and civil rights, in her novels, Kidd said, “Gender and race matter in my life.” Since she grew up in the pre-civil rights South; “This is the stuff of MY history. I feel a responsibility to be a witness to it.”

Most surprising to me, though, was her candor about her characters. She said that when she started trying to write Hetty (Handful, the slave girl in Wings), she started in the third person. “But Hetty kept breaking in with ‘I.’ Sarah was actually more difficult – Hetty talked so fast I could barely keep up!” So she switched to first person, and that was that.

Deborah Harkness is the New York Times bestselling author of the All Souls Trilogy. The latest, The Book of Life, is out now in paperback. This was her second appearance at Watermark – I went to see her four years ago, when A Discovery of Witches was released in paperback. That was a totally random thing, I must admit – a friend called and said, “Hey, this author’s going to be at Watermark and she’s written a book set at Oxford – do you want to go?” So I did.

Unlike either See or Kidd, Harkness doesn’t write straight historical fiction:  her books are primarily paranormal, with a healthy dose of history. Also unlike either See or Kidd, Harkness has a doctorate in history, and her primary area of research covers pretty much the same ground as her books do. In fact, as she told us, “Who I am as a historian informs everything I do as a novelist. I try to bring what I love about history to people through my fiction.”

Harkness still teaches full-time; as she’s fond of saying, she only wrote Discovery because the characters came to her. In an airport bookshop, she saw all the paranormal books and wondered, if vampires and werewolves were real, what kind of lives would they be able to lead? What would they do for a living? From that, she began to wonder some more . .. and eventually, Matthew and Diana came to her.

“I always knew where it would end up,” she said, about the conclusion of her trilogy. “But I didn’t always know how I would get there.” Since she doesn’t outline, there are always surprises:  twists and turns in the plot she didn’t foresee; characters who appeared out of the blue and made themselves at home; things she wrote in the beginning, unsure how they would resolve themselves but trusting that they would.

Three authors. Three different views of the writing process. But the one thing they all said is this:  the ideas can come from anywhere, and the research is the most important thing.

Here’s a few links to the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Quest:

http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero%27s_journey.htm

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=9&ved=0CE0QFjAIahUKEwij05SE5Y3GAhUEQpIKHYM3AF8&url=http%3A%2F%2Fmythologyteacher.com%2Fdocuments%2FTheHeroJourney.pdf&ei=H7h8VePHOISEyQSD74D4BQ&usg=AFQjCNFH6Jj1Rw1G63IOqtEzMFwQpo8j_Q&bvm=bv.95515949,d.cWc  (This is a PDF that seems to automatically download when you click the link.)