by Lillian Csernica on February 16, 2016
Never throw anything away.
That’s one of the most important Rules for Living my mother ever taught me.
The minute you throw it away, you’re going to need it again. Sometimes it can be relatively minor, like a phone number. Sometimes it’s pretty major, like giving away all the baby toys and layette stuff then BOING! There’s a new baby on the way.
When it comes to writing, we never know when that idea or that turn of phrase or that scene might come in handy after all. As I’ve been editing Garden of Lies, the second novel in my Flower Maiden Saga, I save the chunks I cut out and put them in a separate file. They may turn into the seeds of new ideas for the third novel.
Right now I’m experiencing a rather drastic epiphany in my writing process. I have a story that fits the theme of an anthology taking submissions right now. The story meets the essential requirements of the theme. Unfortunately, it’s a story I wrote quite a while ago. As my beta reader put it, it’s “from an earlier stage in my evolution as a writer.” That means I’m a better writer now than I was back then.
I thought the plotline was pretty good. I thought the characters had good motivations. I thought the magic and the monster and the twist all worked.
I was wrong. And I couldn’t see that.
I don’t know if it was just laziness on my part or what. The more questions my beta reader asked, the more I tried to slap little patches on some of the problems, the more the story began to fall apart. I’m in a hurry, because the submission deadline is closing in fast. Thank Heaven my beta reader is very patient with my foibles as a writer. She kept challenging me to think about what the story could be, and not just make do with what I’d already slapped together.
It’s not easy to admit all this. I pride myself on writing good, solid stories. Granted, I pulled this one out of the mending pile. I knew it needed work. Not until the second round of comments from my beta reader did I finally realize what the problem really was. Yes, the main conflict of the story was worth keeping. The rest of it had to be torn down to the foundations and rebuilt from there.
Imagine the difference between a nursery rhyme puppet show and real actors in a live performance of Shakespeare.
I’m not comparing my work to Shakespeare. I am saying I now see how shallow the original version of the story had turned out. If I wanted this story to really shine, I had to commit to tearing everything apart, rethinking all of it, and rebuilding it from scratch.
Stronger plot. Fully fleshed characters. Magic that made sense in both the big and the little details. Anger and jealousy and hatred. Love and loyalty and sacrifice.
Good enough isn’t good enough. Sometimes it’s hard to see what more we could do to a story to improve it. That’s what beta readers are for. That’s where writing groups can be helpful. (Please see all my caveats about writing groups.) Once we have some thoughts from other people on what’s missing, what’s too much, and how well what we’ve got is working, then we can push harder and deeper for the real story that’s waiting to be told.
Writing is hard work. As Westley says to Buttercup in The Princess Bride, “Anybody who says differently is selling something.”