Monday, November 12, 2007

The Cutting Room Floor

Try any goddamn thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, toss it. Toss it even if you love it.
Stephen King

My friend and fellow writer Kim had a great post the other day on her blog Writerly Ramblings. Check out this post, Rough Draft Exercise, and you'll see what I mean. I love this quote - Rough Drafts are basically garbage. Stuff you have to get out so you can write something good later - and the reason I love it is because it is absolutely, one hundred percent correct. So stay with me here while I examine my thoughts on the whole, "Kill your darlings," approach, and at the end of my musings I will share with you some things from my very own cutting room floor.

One of the toughest things about writing is the re-writing. The endless edits. That ominous "red" pen that gets taken to your work. This is tough to see even when you, yourself, are doing the red markings. There is a quote that is attributed to Faulkner or Twain, (there's as much debate on the actual source of the quote as there is its meaning) in which he advises creative types to "kill your darlings." This is not an exact quote, because I'll be darned if I can find it anywhere! But, you get the gist. Basically, it means to cut the stuff you love to save the book. Diana Peterfreund has a great blog post on this topic here, where she discusses in detail the way this advice can be misconstrued and misused.

The quote I used at the top of this post by Stephen King is also a form of the 'kill your darlings' approach. But I think Jenny Crusie, in this post on her He Wrote, She Wrote: Online Writing Workshop with Bob Mayer, sums it up best, "Remember in the final edit, it’s all about the reader. Not you, not your vision, not your deathless prose, not the stuff you want the reader to know, just the stuff the reader wants to know, the story that’s going to take her to another world and give her the emotional release she craves from a good book. Cut away everything else. Then send it to your editor." Truer words...

Now, what I am about to say may shock you, but bear with me - When it comes to your writing, I say, quite firmly, stay away from writers talking about how to write. Well, let me re-phrase that a touch, stay away until your butt has been in the chair long enough to have actually written the first draft. My reasoning behind this is a whole other blog post, but in short form, you will never find your very own "darlings" if you try and model the writers doing the talking. You have to write your own crap before you decide which writer is giving the best advice - FOR YOU.

Finding your unique voice is essential to finding which darlings are worth keeping and which are worth killing. Once you have found your uniqueness, you can go about conforming it to publishing standards with the advice of other writers, until then, write your darlings. Make them as sickly sweet and flowery as you want, but WRITE them, trust me, you'll have several re-writes in which to kill them. Write them for you - cut them for the reader. BUT, as Janine over at Dear Author writes in this post, perhaps not all readers hate those darlings. So, before you decide to wean that baby completely, get lots of feedback. Beta readers, delta readers, readers you trust, to tell you if your darlings are complete brats that should be beat into submission, or sweet and endearing helpers that should stay.

Ultimately, you must love the book or no one else will. And now, as promised, I'll share a bit of stuff from my own Cutting Room Floor. I can't really call this one of my darlings, though I have been hanging on to this particular piece tooth and nail, and it does nothing for the story. The only purpose it does serve, is to me. This allowed me to see the beginning of Jollie Mae's time in Grounds, KS and it is priceless to me, but pointless to the reader. Feel free to critique it, I welcome the feedback, just remember I've already put it in my file marked JUNK, so no need to tell me how senseless the work is. WARNING: What you are about to read is unedited and in very, very rough form.

Enjoy and Take Care

“Ms. Stryker?” I was standing in front of a bowling alley that had been put up for sale, staring through the glass front doors when I heard the voice behind me. I had been thinking about my Gramps, and I was thinking he’d get a real kick out of me owning a bowl. I was also thinking that I must be insane to even thing about buying the place. That I should just get back in my car and drive straight on through to the next town, but I just kept hearing my Gramps voice saying, “What’s say you and me go bowling?” and I couldn’t get my feet to move.

“Ms. Stryker?” I turned around to greet the owner of the voice and watched a big haired woman with even bigger boobs slide out of a brand new Mustang convertible. The sun was glaring off the hood of the car, so it was impossible for me to tell which was the brighter red- her hair or the car. “I sure hope you haven’t been waiting long! Did I get the time of our meeting wrong? I always try and be on time to my appointments but my secretary is out sick today and when I’m on my own I’m a mess!” The woman slammed the car door shut and walked towards me with her hand extended. “Hi! I’m Elizabeth Martin! Owner of Martin Real Estate!”

I shook the proffered hand and said a silent prayer that Elizabeth Martin didn’t always talk like an inspirational speaker. I don’t think I could stand spending enough time with her to buy a burger and fries let alone a business if she did. “Jollie Mae Stryker.”

“Nice to meet ya’ Jollie Mae Stryker! Is Mr. Stryker gonna be meeting up with us soon?”

“Um, no. There is no Mr. Stryker. I’m not married.” Elizabeth had been giving me a hundred watt smile, but it dimmed to sixty when I made my statement. I had a moment of internal meanness and thought the smile wilted because Elizabeth wasn’t used to dealing with another of the boobed persuasion and the thousands of dollars she must of spent on hers were going to be useless in making this sale. I squashed that thought as soon as it appeared though, nastiness never accomplished anything. Goodness knows I’ve seen enough of it to last a lifetime, there was plenty to go around without me adding to it.

I pasted a smile on my face that I knew to be every bit as phony and strained as my companions and got down to business. “So, seein’ as everybody’s here, what’s say you and me go have a look inside this place?”

Elizabeth’s smile faltered yet again, but she quickly regained her composure and fished the keys to the bowl out of her bag. Motioning me towards the doors, she unlocked and held it open for me to walk inside. “I just love your accent! You can definitely tell you’re not from around here. Where was it you said you were from? Oh my! It’s dark in here. Hold tight just one quick minute and I’ll get the lights turned right on!”

Elizabeth walked off in search of light and I was glad to be rid of her. It was, indeed very dark inside the building, but I didn’t need to see anything to tell I was inside one of the best places on Earth. There is no mistaking the smell of a bowling alley.

I closed my eyes and inhaled deep. Immediately the smell of stale smoke, grease, bear, and sweat all rolled into one assaulted my senses. On a league night, the smell of victory and defeat drifts just under the rest and if I could bottle the stuff I would. The newer establishments like to call themselves Bowling Centers. In a Center, smoking is prohibited, and drinking is a no-no outside of the on-site club. This place was definitely not a Bowling Center and I fell in love immediately.

I decided then and there that I was going to buy this place. For the first time in my eight years of wandering from town to town, avoiding relationships - since saying good-bye to my Gramps - I felt at peace. I couldn’t explain it well enough to ever do it justice, but wrapped in the darkness, surrounded by smells that alwyas comforted me, I was ready to stick my heart to the place the way the gunk on the floor had my shoes glued.

At twenty-two, I said good-bye to the only family I had left, the house I grew up in, and the town I’d always called home. Now at thirty, I was ready to find a place to call home again, and I figure a place that reminded me of Gramps was as good a place as any.

I heard a soft cough and I opened my eyes to find the lights were on, and Elizabeth’s boob came into my line of sight about ten seconds before the rest of her. “Sorry it took me so long, I always have a hard time remembering which switch to throw! You want to start in the back and work our way front?”

“No need. I’ll take it.”

Elizabeth’s mouth fell open, “ba, but...” she squeaked and then cleared her throat so that when she continued her voice came out normal (well, normal if you’re selling steak knives on T.V.). “But you haven’t even seen it yet!”

“Elizabeth, I honestly don’t need to. I want it. I’ll take it. Tell me what they’re asking and I’ll make my offer.” It was clear that Elizabeth was at a loss as to what to do, dollar signs were flashing in her eyes competing with whatever her sense of right and wrong. Just imagining her thought process was making me dizzy.

Blinking rapidly, Elizabeth straightened her short skirt, took a deep breath that strained the buttons on her thin jacket and said, “I really would feel much better about this if you could at least look around first. We don’t have to take a long tour, but if you would at least look at it first...”

I could understand where she was coming from. I was saying that I’d pay a lot of money- and I’d be willing to bet her commission wasn’t chump change- and my decision probably seemed rather rash. I figured I had two choices, explain to her that just walking through those doors-just smelling the air in the place - told me I knew owning this place was right or humor the woman and take a look at the place. Since I was hoping Grounds, KS would be my new home, I really didn’t want her spreading the rumor that I was crazy, while it may be true, I didn’t want my new neighbors knowing it, so I chose the safe route, “OK, let’s have a look around first.”

(Note: There is more to this scene but in an attempt to keep this post fitting on one page, I've decided to post it tomorrow.)

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