I just returned from a brief trip to California for a memorial service (a sad occasion, but a lovely time was had), and as is tradition in our family, we drove all the way down (and back) in one 9-10 hour stretch, with only two pit-stops in between. We’re militantly tough drivers, partially because we don’t mind being alone with the scenery and a case full of classic rock CDs. Some of my best brainstorming comes from letting my mind wander during these trips.
As I remembered this trip, sometimes building also means destruction. This is true in fiction more than anywhere else.
Much as we want to keep every great idea we scribble in our notebooks, the truth is, we can’t hold onto them all. Too much of anything, be it plot threads or characters, and the story gets weighed down. Some authors can go on for a few hundred thousand words longer than the rest of us, but I’m sure even George R.R. Martin has had to cut content from the Game of Thrones series. Even outside of books, there’s a reason that extended cuts and b-sides exist, but aren’t kept in the core content.
I found myself doing a lot of story trimming this weekend. One task was simpler, streamlining a novella I’m working on for NineStar Press’ LOST collection. I cut out a couple characters (I have a great fear of bogging down a story with too many characters, after my first NaNoWriMo attempt landed me with a novel of 16+ characters in 50,000 words) and rearranged relationships around, which on paper sounds like no huge deal. And really, it isn’t. I have to scrap the opening to the novella again, but elements of those first attempts can still be recycled. If nothing else, I learned more about the world and the people within it, so the demolished wordcount at least lead to some worldbuilding. Like tearing off a bandaid, it stings a bit, but the pain passes soon enough to forget.
Then there’s the hard cut: I scrapped an entire book.
This isn’t the first time I’ve done so for the Deadly Drinks series; the first draft of “Bones and Bourbon” was similar only in name and protagonist to the novel releasing next April, and its in-progress sequel had so many restarts before I finally finished the first draft. I’m lucky in that I hadn’t started book four (seeing as book three isn’t even done yet), but even though words hadn’t hit the page yet, tossing it still hurt. Why was this?
Because it had so much I WANTED. The magical world intruding on the mundane. Playing with Frankenstein’s Creation (I refuse to call him a monster–or, stars forbid, Frank). Secret societies! Magical cyborgs! Ghost-powered transportation through other dimensions!
But from the time I revved up the engine and rolled out of the parking lot with Santana tunes blaring from the speakers, I knew it didn’t fit. When writing a series, one has to consider not just developing plot and character across one book, but over the series as a whole, and this book didn’t fit the direction the series needed to grow in. Such a fantastical tale would raise the stakes for the entire setting too much for a mid-series book, and the Gallows brothers were taking the back seat to all the cool elements I wanted to include.
So I let it go. I burned the images in my head and picked a few pieces out of the ashes that I did need for what book 4 will become. The rest of it gets tucked away to percolate in the back-burners of my mind, likely emerging on another long road trip as a new story all its own. I collected sights and snippets of songs to inspire a story that’ll fit better with my narrative arc, and if I’m lucky, I might still be able to sneak some interdimensional ghosts in there. (But first, we finish book three, edit book two, publish book one. I like to work well ahead of schedule.)
It’s a matter of weighing what we want to write with what the story needs. Let your mind wander, but know when to reel it in when it drifts too far.
Now that I’ve spent so much time cutting content, it’s time I got back to work creating again.
PS: Speaking of road trips, I did sneak a couple of my favorite details along I-5 in “Bones and Bourbon.” I also refrained from making any jokes about the State of Jefferson, but I can make no promises for the finished product…