Friday, September 26, 2014

Let it go

As if my writing needs any more diversions, Writer’s Digest lights up my inbox. Daily. Three or four times, daily. Being the distractible type, I click on it, especially when the writing is fighting me. Though a lot of it is stuff they’re trying to sell, they regularly put out informative articles on craft. One such, by Jack Heffron, is titled, “How to Destroy Your Initial Idea (& Make Your Story Better)”

Heffron starts with a Pablo Picasso quote: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” He readily admits he has no clue what Picasso means, but applies the quote to writing. “The generative idea for a piece,” Heffron says, “is more an avenue to richer ideas than an end in itself. At those times, we must be willing to let go of our initial premise.” We sometimes need to destroy our initial writing idea for the good of the story. 

He cites an example from his own writing to illustrate. He had written a piece and put a lot of time and effort into it. For the first 24 pages, two women converse in a doughnut shop until two men enter, have a brief encounter with them, and all four leave on page 25. Readers looked at it and told him the story starts on page 24. Heffron was frustrated. He had labored for hours perfecting the dialogue, developing each woman character and produced a ton of good lines. Was such an effort to be a mere prelude to the real story?

Sometimes the answer is yes.

He shelved the story for a while and when he came back to it, he realized they were right. (That little writer’s group - there’s a reason we keep them around.) He revised and brought the two men in by page 2 and had the four of them leave by page 7 and his story was better. Yet the weeks he invested initially was not a waste. Heffron spent the time intimately getting to know his characters. His rounded understanding of them allowed the story to surprising turns, twists he wouldn’t have imagined if he didn’t know the characters so well. He says he wouldn’t have achieved the real start of the story if he hadn’t written what came before. His initial premise led him to literary gold, even though it was eventually discarded.

How liberating, yet how unnerving. We’ve all been there before. We’ve put in time and effort honing and crafting paragraphs or pages. Then our finger hovers over the delete key as that inner writer’s voice tells us to let it go.

Im getting better at it. I have a need to save those little nuggets of writing gold in an idea file, but once they are removed, the story is cleaner. 

There are times, in mid-story, I’ll stop and write a note to myself that will get dumped. I do this often with characters, especially when they act in a way contrary to how they should. I’ve written a multi-page backstory on a character, expelling why they would do such and such. It is not germane to the story, but it is vital to me. I need to deeply understand these people. 

Back to Heffron’s premise. Sometimes an initial idea takes off in an unintended direction and it must be discarded. He ends by comparing breaking up with an idea to that in a relationship. You’ve tried different strategies. You’ve sought counseling. But, says Jack Heffron, “at some point, we need to tell the piece to sit down. We need to summon the courage to say, “Honey, we need to talk.”

(This article also posted at

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