Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Editing Backstory - On the Chopping Block

by Martha Reed

If I had to pick one image to describe how I create my stories, I would picture a professional gas range with all kinds of pots and saucepans steaming, simmering, and bubbling away. Occasionally, I lift a lid to check on things, and maybe give an idea a stir or turn down the heat until I’m ready to serve it up. I usually have two or three stories cooking away at the same time, and I’m as surprised as anyone to discover the finished dish: sometimes it’s chicken, sometimes it’s fish, sometimes it’s cold fruit loops in a bowl.

Something happened to me on my latest story that has never happened before. There I was, merrily writing away, when I came to a fork in the road. My writerly side insisted that I follow the storyline down the path I had mapped out – and write it out in full – while my editorial side spoke up to mention that this bit was actually backstory and that it would have to get trimmed out of the final – so why didn’t I save myself the time and trouble of writing it down and simply skip past it now? It was the strangest feeling. I felt like I was straddling the divide between my creative and editorial sides and getting pulled in two directions, like a referee.

In the end, I compromised, (if you can compromise with yourself) and wrote out the backstory. I wrote it thinly, not spending a lot of time on it, just following the narrative line and eliminating any descriptive detailing that usually costs me time. The storyline turned out pretty much the way I had envisioned it, and when it was done I put my editorial hat on and took a good hard look at it. The bit didn’t reveal anything new about my characters; it didn’t provide any new motivations for their actions that we didn’t already know about, and it certainly didn’t add any new details that I hadn’t already planned on revealing later in the story. So, ruthlessly, bravely, I deleted it while it lay there breathing on the slab.

What was the point of this exercise?

When I originally conceived the idea, I had decided to create something around 5,000 words. While I was working on the story, I think the editorial part of my brain was performing an unconscious word count for me, and my brain was warning me at the split that I was nearing my word limit if I wanted to keep the story tight. If this is true, I’ve added a new trimming tool to my repertoire, and more importantly, I’ve learned to use this tool at the beginning of the process instead of at the end.

Any other word chefs out there? What tricks or tools have you discovered?


Anonymous said...

The most helpful piece of writing advice I've ever gotten is, "Writing and editing are two different processes and shouldn't be confused."

If I take my editorial hat out too soon, I start hating everything I write and it totally incapacitates me. I'm not able to get anything down on paper.

I'm not really sure how this fits in with the cooking metaphor . . .

Joyce Tremel said...

Great blog, Martha!

I guess it all boils (to go with your cooking theme) down to following our writer's intuition. I think deep down we know what's going to work and what won't. And every writer is different.

Some people love outlines. I've found that I can't follow a tight outline or I end up with crap. Some writers can spit out a whole book and then go back and fix it. I have to edit and revise as I go along.

Martha Reed said...

An outline works for me if I have to write business material (non-fiction, sort of) but if it's creative I don't even know where it's going until I get there too. For me, that's the fun of it, the surprise...