Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Chop, Chop, Chop

I feel like an awful mother. I have to kill my baby.

It took me years to grow this one. It's not just a baby, it's practically a child already. It has a life of its own. This baby has been nurtured, coaxed, and bounced around plenty. This baby has been blessed by brilliant authors such as Marion Dane Bauer, Uma Krishnaswami, Jane Kurtz, Julie Larios, and Margaret Bechard. Jane Yolen loved this baby. I loved--still love--this baby. It pains me to think about hacking apart what Margaret not only blessed but practically baptized. It won an award and praise a'plenty. This is one beautiful baby.

The problem is that this baby won't grow up. It's eight years old and still in the toddler stage! It can't even stand on it's own yet. And as a writer, I have to admit: my story won't float.

There's a reason I can't get through a whole draft. There is a fatal flaw. I have a character who doesn't know what she wants. She knows what she doesn't want, but that's not enough to sustain the plot line. It just won't carry us through. And there are things in my story that just don't make sense. Maybe Margaret was too kind to tell me that during my last semester at VC. Maybe Margaret was so tired of reading it that it started to make sense.

This baby of mine, unlike my real children who I would never in a million years consider hacking apart, is well deserving of a good dissection. I tried to avoid it... I tried doing character sketches, synopses--both long and short, time lines, flap copy, everything. These are all tricks that writers can use to get to the heart of a story. If a writer can't summarize the story in a few sentences (jacket flap) or a few paragraphs (elevator pitch), then maybe the story needs a little trimming. Or, more accurately, honing. Get to the point. Find "the bottom line" of your story by summing it up. My story is about the daughter of a witch who... . She doesn't want to be a witch? She wants human friends? She doesn't fit in? Yes, all of those apply. But I need to take this story apart, bone by bone, to see what is at the very heart of it--which of those statements sum up my story the best.

Writers, don't be afraid to do this! How, you ask? How do you dissect your story? Cynthia Leitich Smith tells of a time that she wrote out a whole story--I think it was Tantalize. She finished the whole draft, and when it was done, she hit the delete button. I don't think I can bring myself to do that, nor do I feel the urge to purge the whole story. But I think picking apart your story is healthy. You learn not to get attached to those perfect sentences, those pristine paragraphs. Chop, chop, chop, and then write it again.

Here's what I'm doing: I am going through with a red pen and underlining what I find to be most pertinent to the story line. What actions does she take to move the story forward? What thoughts does she have that are absolutely necessary to understand her problem? What shows what this character really, really wants more than anything else? That can stay... but, here's the hard part: nothing else stays.

I'm cutting. Slashing, hacking, tearing it apart bit by bit, rather like an axe murderer. I'll see what's left and then rebuild from there. And then I'll write it again

This is a painful process, because I know there's good writing in there. Margaret told me so. But that's the beauty of being a writer: if you write it well once, you can write it again, better.

Because writers write, right?


1 comment:

Patti L Brown said...

Oh! I want to add thanks to those brilliant mentors who have helped me so much with this story. Many thanks to:

Marion Dane Bauer (,
Uma Krishnaswami (,
Jane Kurtz (,
Julie Larios (,
Margaret Bechard (,
Cynthia Leitich Smith (
and Jane Yolen (

Please visit their websites to learn more about them.