On Writing Part Two: (You’ve Got to be) Ruthless

I remember when I first started writing seriously, I would come across all these articles where writers talked about “honing their craft.” That would immediately trigger an eyeroll and a metaphorical flipping of the page (after all most of these articles appeared online). Now seven years later as I begin work on my fifth novel, I’m rethinking that.

I still dislike the term, sounding as it does as if one was practicing sorcery. Though, now I’ve come to realize that when we write, we create something out of nothing, which is kind of a neat conjurer’s trick; you (hopefully) pull gold from straw like a literary alchemist.

And sometimes, too, being a writer can feel like you’re playing God playing house. You breathe life into your characters after all and give them companions and adventures. The story itself is the Universe you created for them. The characters are the bones of the story; the plot and the conflicts are the capillaries and veins and arteries. And the words are the skin. That is what you see, touch, feel. The story itself can be joyous or sad, heartbreaking, inspiring or frightening…

But, conjurer, alchemist, or God, as a writer, you are in service to the story, enslaved by its needs, as if the characters have you under their spell. Once you’ve written your brilliant story full of insight and effervescent, unforgettable characters, the real work—the pain—begins. You must edit, edit, edit.

When we bought our first house, we had a little front garden. I was so enamored of the idea of having a garden but being a city kid, I knew not the first thing about planting a garden and I have an aversion to both dirt and manual labor. Nonetheless, I started reading gardening books and magazines. I remember reading an interview with an English woman who had prize winning gardens. When asked what the secret to creating a great garden was, she said, “You’ve got to be ruthless.” When asked what a weed was, she answered, “Anything growing somewhere you don’t want it.”

That interview stayed with me (long after I abandoned the idea of gardening) and informs my editorial process. I have to be ruthless; I have to weed no matter how much I like a character or a scene or a line of dialogue. If it doesn’t advance the story, or define a character, I’ve got to pull it out at the roots.

In my writing, I tend to focus on important moments—that can be either large or small—but always somehow defining. Now the challenge of course is that I don’t just write scenes and characters that are crucial to the story—that’s where the editing comes in. To further complicate matters, I don’t outline; I start with a general idea of how I want the story to end and just write. I also don’t write sequentially, so when the book is “done,” I go back and put it together like a jigsaw puzzle, so it makes sequential sense. And then I edit out the parts that don’t make sense or aren’t needed to drive the story.

For me, writing has been such a journey. I have learned so much about myself: I can’t write sequentially; I feel most connected to my stories, my characters, when I write pen to paper; I’m most comfortable with the first-person point of view—I like its limitations and the discipline control it imposes. I like editing my work. I’m ruthless. Because I have to be.

Read last week’s blog post, On Writing (Part One): Self-Discovery 

Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

Comments

  1. I've really enjoyed reading that thanks, Larry. As lot to think about , and though I now mainly write poetry-stories for kis I worki in a similar way. Practically, it's the old pencil & paper first, but mentally I follow the lead of the characters and then edit,then edit,then edit but still miss things. Fortunately, Deb doesn't!

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