Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Work in Progress: Snip, Snip

I mentioned that “my summer vacation” has been spent waiting to hear about my novel and tackling a varied assortment of shorter-term writing projects. Within this random chaos, I’ve come up with a new writing trick that has been useful when revising and when creating new work:

When in doubt, cut.

It sounds simple—and probably it is; probably I’m a dunce for not figuring this out sooner—but it all became clear when I was revising an old story that I hadn’t looked at for at least two years. The bones were good, and I wanted to give it another try. Part of the problem with this story was that it was simply too long. These days your story has to be pretty spectacular to get a literary journal to hand over 30 pages to it…oh, and your last name also has to be Franzen or Updike or some such. So I started out knowing I wanted to cut, so that was a good point of departure.

But what to cut? Upon the first couple rereadings, everything in the story felt inter-related and impossible to cut. (A familiar feeling, perhaps?) It wasn’t as though I could trim pages and pages without affecting the storyline significantly.

Then I stopped looking at the big picture and went through paragraph by paragraph. And what I found was that on that level, it was much easier to find points where I could think, “What if this was gone?” I’d take it out and discover that I didn’t miss it and that the story didn’t really need it. (A lot of this was background and history that seemed so important until it wasn’t there.) Snip, snip—I hacked away more than five pages.

And my new mantra was surprisingly helpful when I was creating new work, too. I love revising, but first draft writing is very hard for me—there are always a thousand points where I wonder what I’m doing and find myself getting frustrated that things aren’t perfect and that I have absolutely no idea where the story is going. I’m sort of used to that—I guess it’s my “process”—though by far the hardest part is wondering “where is this story going.” When those doubts get too far, I find that where the story is going is exactly nowhere, because I’ve stopped writing, paralyzed.

But now—thanks to my new mantra—I step back and CUT. When I don’t know what happens next in the story, I simply retreat backward and take out the thing that just happened prior, whether it’s a line of dialogue or the elevator door opening. What if no one says anything? What if the elevator door DOESN’T open? It’s amazing—that simple trick usually works and shakes my mind out of paralysis and into seeing the possibility of what’s next. And there I am…moving forward again, hopefully stopping well before I get to page 30!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.