Thursday, October 11, 2007

Missing Details

Posted by Lynne

Take a look at the following tidbits from my novel.

His office looked and smelled yellow, a combination of a bad paint job and cigarettes. Before I sat down, I noticed two empty packages in his wastebasket. Nicotine gum and Good-and-Plenty.

**
I breast-fed him on demand. I dressed him in well-washed clothing, everything had snaps. Nothing with zippers for fear I’d catch his tender skin in their teeth. Harry badgered me, saying I was overprotective, but I made safe choices, controlled every variable I could. When I look back, I need to believe I did that.

Writing details that capture our characters' personalities, their motivations, is essential. Yet only some of these details will make it into the finished novel; that's up to you. Both of the passages above captured important information I needed to know to draw authentic characters. But only one of these passages remains in my novel today, the other passage was cut in the revision process.

Even though the snipped out passage remains in a document file I call snippets and keeps, I will never use it again. Sitting in that file are several treasured phrases and paragraphs of mine no one will ever read; I killed them in revision.

While there are those of us who underwrite and those who overwrite early drafts, each of us in the end must make difficult choices to remove certain details that tell the reader the specific traits, quirks and desires that round out our characters. Amy and I call this word-by-word examination, the painful revision.

Your readers may never learn that your antagonist was bullied by a much smaller boy when he was growing up, or know that your protagonist once stole a candy bar from a convenience store when she was hypoglycemic and broke, but you know these things and each detail informs your writing; whether or not your readers will ever find these details on the page is irrelevant.

And though it hurts at first to let go, these fine distinctions of character are never truly lost. They stay in your mind, and because of this your characters embody them. Whether in the story or in your imagination, each facet helps your characters to shimmer. In this way, less is more.

So do you wonder which of the above passages lives on the page in Life Without Summer? Take a guess. And while you're at it, do you care to share with us how you feel about killing your own little darlings?

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I hope it's the first one -- I was sitting in the office with you the picture was so clear to me!

Carleen Brice said...

I'm guessing the first one too. Killing darlings...always tough. I've slaughtered thousands, though I've also protected a few. Sometimes, they do need to be protected.

Lisa said...

I think you kept the first one too. It feels very "in scene" and the second feels a bit more expository. One of the huge benefits of a critique group is that I think I always suspect some of those little gems are too much, but my trusted readers will confirm my instincts. I'm big on description, so I've gotten notes like: "I'm torn because I love what you've done with this description, but I feel like it's going on a bit too long". It's not a hard choice for me after that :)

Larramie said...

Based on the logic of knowing that Life Without Summer is about the loss of a child, I'd say the second passage remains. Not only are details given in these sentences but more complexities are hinted at about the character speaking as well as her husband and -- assuming here -- son.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Well, I like 'em both--they each create a scene, a place, a sense of character. I'm guessing you kept the first one because I agree with Lisa, the second one veers a bit on the side of "telling."

Usually, by the time I have to kill off some darlings, they've been nagging at me as I read and have started irritating me--I know they have to go, but I have to start not liking them. And then, zap. They're gone. I don't even move them to some folder for wayward passages.

The Writers' Group said...

Thanks for weighing in on which passage remains in my novel. It always feels a bit risky to put my writing out there, but the teacher in me said go for it.

As for the passages--the winner is--number one remains, number two was cut. That said, the second passage was a valuable exercise in character development. In writing this expository paragraph, I came to connect deeply with one of my characters and was later able to use what I knew to create authenic dialogue and specific action.

Like Judy, I might struggle to cut material, but once I do I'm fine. Try offing a beloved paragraph, you too might come to like it.

Lynne

Ghost Girl said...

Yes, I have cut those darlings as well. For me, I often read aloud as I am writing or revising. In the revision process, if I stop reading, I know something isn't working right. If I hit a bump, I might go over it 50 times to decide if it's just the way the words work (or don't) together, or of the information in general just doesn't fit. I find myself highlighting the section and moving it around for a bit, like the last two peas on the plate that I just don't want to eat. Eventually, I may have to make the decision to slice the little morsel out of my book.

Sometimes it is actually glorious!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

What a good question. You know, there's an element of--what--power? Confidence? In cutting something you love for the greater good? It sort of--what--elevates you? To know the whole will be better for the loss of a part that really didn't fit?
It's a process, maybe, to realize that something that's good can go--because there'll be other good things.

(I would have voted to keep para one, but I was too chicken to vote.)

xo Hank

The Writers' Group said...

Hi Hank,

With a solid character like Charlie, I bet you did a lot of writing, paring and smoothing because she shines! Yes, it is a powerful thing to trust that if you've written wonderful passages that ultimately go, there will be many more to follow.

Thanks for weighing in.

Lynne