Monday, February 20, 2012

What to Keep and What to Toss

What to keep and what to toss; a writer’s dilemma

Of all the battles a writer has to wage within himself, this is one gives me the most grief. Early in my career, I felt obligated to toss everything in, including the kitchen sink. Of course, my first editor knew better than that and counseled me to go for a bit more brevity. Actually, a lot more. Taught me the value of the saying that less is more.

Perhaps the main reason I told too much was fear of the dreaded ‘hook’. We all know we need to hook our readers from the very first sentence, but, gosh how are they going to be hooked if they don’t know the entire history of the main character? Stuff like that. Lol.

Along the way, I had an opportunity for a few weeks of mentoring by a NYT best-selling author, and she taught me a lot. Interestingly enough, her advice was for me to gather all sorts of peripheral data to flesh out my protagonist before I wrote word one. I went shopping and picked out the kind of pen I’d find on her desk, the style notebook she kept handy, items in her home that she would kill to keep, etc.

I thought at first my mentor was daft. Why did I need to pick the china in her buffet, the clothes in her closet, the time of day she was most vulnerable to a case of the blues. On and on went the list. By the time I’d complied with her instructions, the course was nearly over, and I felt cheated.

But, and this is a dandy, I sifted through all that stuff and, you know what? I suddenly saw my character as human, a person with strengths and weaknesses, passion, hungers and aversions, to wit; a real living breathing, suffering, imperfect but lovable person.

I wrote the book. The final story won’t be written on that book in my lifetime, since I have no way of knowing how it will fare in the competitive world of fiction writing. But I wrote the doggone book and I’m proud of it.

Now, back to my question. How much of all that periphery data did I include? Not too much in terms of straightforward narrative, though my understanding what kind of blouse she would purchase or her favorite song made her come alive in the pages of my book. So, my advice to fellow authors is, compile a book on your main characters. Don’t be shy, and don’t undershoot on this. You’ll ultimately, perhaps with the aid of a good editor, hone it down to the essence of what it is to be alive on God’s green earth.

Happy reading, all.

Pat Dale

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