What doesn’t fit

April 27, 2008 at 7:27 am (Writing work)

It’s strange what gets left out of a story.

I’m thinking about this now because I just finished the first draft of the sequel to Spiral Hunt. It’s in typical (for me) first-draft stage: central plot concept just fine, ways of getting there all over the place, characters stepping in and dropping out like bit-part players in a crowd scene, and a whole lot of bits at the end marked with XXX RETCON THIS SO IT DOESN’T COME OUT OF NOWHERE. I need these things when I’m writing a first draft, regardless of whether it’s a short story or a novel; if I go back and fix a chapter so it leads up to the current point in the plot, I’ll lose the momentum and end up fixing the back while the front’s still unfinished.  (This results in, among other things, a first draft that’s pretty much unreadable; the second draft pulls it together a lot more.)

But one of the things I’ve noticed when I revise is how many elements of the first draft don’t make it past that draft.  A lot of this is probably due to how I write that first draft, adjusting the outline as I go, staring at the screen and writing down whatever it takes to get the characters from point A to explosion B. I end up throwing a lot of things in there just to make it go.

And then they get cut.  Usually it’s for a good reason — the scene isn’t helping the plot, the character won’t appear anywhere else and so doesn’t need all five pages of backstory, the explanation for a minor plot point takes up more space than the plot point itself and so deforms the entire chapter, and so on.  I’ve had one scene that I’d originally written for Spiral Hunt, taken out of that draft, and added to the sequel — and it’s going to have to be cut here as well.  It’s a good scene, but at the moment it’s sitting there like a beautiful quilt square surrounded by the ingredients for a chocolate cake: an essential component of something, but not of this particular work.

It’s hard to put them away entirely, though (which may be why some of these linger on into later drafts until someone else points out the problem).  They’re so sparkly, and helped so much when I was slogging through that chapter, and now they’re unnecessary.

It helps to know that whatever got taken out made room for something even better.  So while you won’t find the iron purification scene in Spiral Hunt, or the three drunk magicians and their designated driver, or the gilded gentleman in the North End, you will find thorned spirals chiseled into a door, a car that looks like the result of a demolition derby organized by the Rosicrucians, the first rule of bargaining with nice little old ladies, and an explanation for the chant of “Yankees Suck!” that goes up at pretty much every Red Sox game regardless of who’s playing.

Not a bad trade-off, to my mind.

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