Thursday, January 14, 2010

Things I've Learned: The Backpack

Let me start by saying that I'm no expert. I'm 21. I'm not a published author. When I sit down at my computer I do not spin pure gold with my prose and awe people with my fantastic skill. But there are a few things I've learned along the way, and I thought it might be fun to talk about them, on the off chance that they help someone else as much as they've helped me.

Pretty much the most important one for the purposes of revising is...The Backpack.

I learned about The Backpack from my writing professor (the brilliant Shauna Seliy). And it goes like this: imagine that you are about to embark upon a twenty mile hike through the wilderness, and you have to fit everything you need into one backpack. Do you want to bring your hair dryer? Uh, no. First of all, because there aren't any plugs. Second of all, because no one's going to see you. And third, and most importantly, because it will take up space in your already cramped backpack, and it's completely unnecessary.

The core of this: only take what you absolutely need to make it to the end of the hike. And it's the same in writing. Do we need to know what your character eats at a given meal? Not unless someone chokes on a cherry pit or has an allergic reaction to the shellfish. Do we need to know what she dreamed about the night before? Not unless it has some critical bearing on her mental or emotional condition.

(But what if I--

No.)

If it does not contribute to character development, world building, or plot, take it out.

This is the tough conversation I have with myself every time I revise something. I stare at the sections of my draft that I love the most, the little moments at the breakfast table and the long stares in the hallway and the interludes about the merits of root beer, and I sigh, and I think, this is good writing, is there some way I can keep this? And then my internal editor swings in from above and says: NO. TAKE IT OUT.

(What about this little--

No!

But it's so sweet, and it really does contribute to her character--

NO!)

The same professor said that if there's a gun in a scene, it is going to go off at some point, and if it doesn't, it shouldn't be there. You don't introduce an interesting element like that to a scene if it doesn't ultimately serve a purpose, and you don't introduce characters or events if they don't serve a purpose. I have to get really brutal with my drafts because of this. I love to expand and I love to explore interesting places and people with my writing, and that's fine...for the first draft. But in draft two, those things have to go. Period.

I'm having this problem right now, actually. I introduced a character in the first fifty pages of my draft who never ended up coming back. I thought he might, but that was when I didn't have the plot fully fleshed out, so he didn't. Now I have to go back and remove him. And I really liked James. He had an attitude. He had pizazz. But I'm cutting him. Sorry, James. You're a little useless.

This attitude, by the way, is how TM went from 110,000 words to 58,000 words in revisions. I get a little merciless with the axe sometimes. I had help, also.

My general rule is: if I can lift a character/scene/concept from my story without damaging it in some crucial way, that character/scene/concept shouldn't be there.

So, my number 1 tool. The Backpack.

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