the delete key is the writer’s best friend

Writer’s block has many causes and just a few solutions but I never found any advice better than what Victoria Nelson says in On Writer’s Block, long since out of print.

First, she suggests making something unexpected happen so that the characters have a new problem to try to survive and then solve. But if that doesn’t work, she also suggests cutting back to the last place you felt passionate about the story and start over from that point.

I’ve only had to go back and cut a section out of my story that actually hurt once. It was 40k that I’d gone down the wrong plotline for. I realized about 20k into what had to be cut that I was just driving the problem I had at 3k deeper into the story but I thought I could pull it out of its nose dive.

I couldn’t. The problem was too fundamental. I’d killed a character to start off the series of events that would lead a character to choosing the dark side as the last real choice he had but no one really liked the dead character. He was important because of who he was, not how the rest of the characters felt about him.

The actions that followed would only make sense if the death was a personal loss, not something someone is sad a friend was going through. Which meant none of the 40k of plot worked because the motivation was all wrong.

I don’t make motivational change in the text. Why a character is doing something changes everything about their actions and their POV, even if the old draft has them doing all the things they ought to be doing. Motivation shows itself in every sentence and grafting a new motivation onto old prose is far more work for me than trying to save the existing prose.

Back when Word was worse at saving corrupted files than it is now (or just eating them entirely) I had a lot of work just vanish. I did a lot of recreating work out of necessity. Each time, every time, even though the exact same things happened and the motivation didn’t need to change at all, the second version of the scene was infinitely better.

I used to write my first drafts blindly. I didn’t even know what happened at the end of the sentence before I started it most time. What major plot event came next was a your guess as good as mine thing. But when I had to rewrite it, I knew exactly what was happening next because I’d already written it.

It was such on obvious difference that when I switching to always knowing what happened next before starting for the day meant I could cruise through a 2000 word quota before noon. All I had to worry about at the time of writing is how do I make this next thing happening matter more.

And even with that as my goal of every scene in the writing the first draft, I still cut another almost 40k from the work in revision yesterday. It means I’ll have to write another 30k of hot copy before I can start any meaningful editing.

Cutting that 40k over a decade ago had felt like holding my work down on the sawbones’ table. Today, I was actually quite happy that the only thing that could be salvaged from the 3/4 mark to the epilogue was the epilogue. There wasn’t a scene in the cut bit I hadn’t enjoyed writing but the rewrite had meant I was telling a different story and what I’d written to support that idea wasn’t needed any more.

I always thought the foundational structures of fiction were the scaffolding that helped by build a taller, stronger, longer-lasting story. But they’re needed for a strong foundation. The scaffolding is actually the first draft.

It’s why critique groups have stopped working. People have stopped sitting down trying to learn how to build a better story, they want some quick tips as to what they can do in the immediate sense to sell this story in particular.

My worst exchange with an instructor was in my third year. I’d received yet another Dear Barb letter and I was trying to nail down with this instructor what, exactly, did they want from me. Summing up her vageuly worded email, I asked her point blank if she really only wanted me to discuss aspects of the story that were in the story.

She agreed that would be lovely. All summer long, I’d wanted to quit even though I had SSHRC funding waiting for me in September after losing my job to COVID. I had one course left and my puppet show I was super excited to experiment with as a medium.

My instructor had just told me the goal of the entire program was to make this two individual stories polished while changing as little about it as possible. She probably didn’t understand that was what she was saying when she said if the story doesn’t have conflict, don’t mention the lack of it, but that was what she was spelling out.

It was the same instructor who had been so shocked at my explanation to another student as to how to escalate tension. She’d never seen it explained so clearly before. She teaches in a genre that stories live and die by how it escalates tension, and didn’t know how to teach it herself.

I’d go back and change the gender to neutral but I only had one male instructor and we had a whole host of other issues that at least never touched on being too craft-focused.

My first pro-edit job was with a novel that I put through the ringer and the mangler three times. In the third complete rewrite, I advised the author that while the past 40k of the new version was a huge improvement to the past two rewrites, it still didn’t do enough for the story and I thought it should be cut.

He agreed. And the 30k he replaced it with were even better than the 60k of the third rewrite I didn’t ask him to cut. The book that went to market was non-hyperbolically speaking, a million times better for every part of those 3.4 total rewrites.

If I had said in class that a draft had some lovely writing in it but without stakes, conflict, or a sense of urgency, the draft still needed a rewrite to touch on something a reader could respond to, I’d probably have gotten thrown out of class again.

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