The other day I tweeted a little line about the importance of not being afraid to get rid of that one PRECIOUS OH MY PRECIOUS thing in your novel. Sort of in the same vein as “kill your darlings”, but way more apocalyptic. Because the “precious” I’m thinking of, the “precious” we sometimes have to throw into the fires of Mount Doom, requires not just a wee tweak in the revision process, but instead a major rewrite.
Listen, I just spent the last couple months all hung up on what had been a major component of the novel I’m revising — one of the central characters and concepts that the entire structure hung upon. And now it’s gone. Really, really, gone. Like, I can’t even make lame excuses to myself about why I needed that component in there — because once I realized how the story could work without it, it became perfectly clear that the book never required it in the first place. It was just filler. Even worse, safe filler. An idea that felt comfortable and familiar, which created an illusion of value.
That could have been a rough realization, given the extra work I had to put in — but instead it was liberating. I’d been in a rut, going ’round and ’round the same problem — and here was the fix. Not just a fix, but a lesson about the way I approached my work. Doesn’t matter how much you like something or think you need it (but it’s essential, I told myself, I’ve invested too much to let it go), we can’t always trust our instincts. Sometimes, with our own work, our instincts are bad. We have to step back, pretend we’re strangers to our writing, and give it the hard stare. Or let others do it for us.
We have to look at our bad habits as writers, too. The tricks we use that give the semblance of depth, when really, there isn’t much there. For example, last night we watched the movie, Ender’s Game. Love the book, but the film fell flat for me. And one thing that was pointed out, correctly, is that the soundtrack was used to cue the audience into significant moments of the film, rather than the writing and performances themselves. Maybe that’s not a big deal, but to us it seemed like a shortcut that added no depth to the story, offered no real information, and no connection between the audience and characters. It only created an illusion of value.
Sometimes that’s okay. We all have our soundtrack moments. We all have filler. Revising is where we clear it all away, assuming we even see the problem. That’s the hardest part, where I’ve fallen down so many times — just seeing what’s wrong. Learning how to let go — figuring out what comes next after you do — that’s almost as difficult.
Just saying to you: keep going, keep questioning, keep looking. If you’re making too many excuses to yourself and others about why something needs to stay in your novel, there’s a good chance you’re clinging to an idea that isn’t as important as you think it is. Don’t be afraid to reevaluate. Don’t mistake what’s comfortable for what’s right.