Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Writer's Bonepile

I keep a bonepile (and I'm not talking about skeletons in the closet). On my computer, I have these files:
Book 1 bonepile.doc
Book 2 bonepile.doc
Book 3 bonepile.doc
In them, I keep the major passages that I have cut from the books of my WATERSPELL fantasy trilogy. Not every superfluous adjective or adverb, of course, not every unnecessary prepositional phrase, but the meaty bits that, for one reason or another, I've edited out.

It's handy to be able to dip back into those bonepiles when I discover that I've cut something I shouldn't have. Recently, a critique partner told me my main character's motives during one important scene were murky. I was "being subtle," I replied. I was following this advice from Noah Lukeman's book, The First Five Pages:
"Picture the reader as brilliant, perceptive, having a photographic memory, taking everything in the first time he reads it, able to grasp ideas before you even begin to say them, able to see where things are leading before you begin to lay them out."
Well, as it turns out, I was demanding too much of the reader, expecting them to see where that particular section was leading without me laying it out. I needed to provide more information so the reader would fully understand why Carin had made her decision in the way that she had, when other factors seemed to strongly tempt her to choose differently.

Seeking something half remembered, I scanned my Book 1 bonepile, and sure enough I found that in an early draft I had revealed her thinking, I had shown the considerations that made Carin's ultimate decision seem inevitable. But, following Lukeman's advice about "how to be subtle," I'd taken it out.

The passage in the bonepile wasn't something I could just copy and paste into my working draft, but it provided a skeleton upon which I could build. The passage I ended up with is better than the original bits that landed in the bonepile, and I believe it solves the problem that my critique partner identified. (I'll find out, anyway, next time we meet.)

Bonepiles as Organization Aids

Kathryn Lay (the award-winning author of Crown Me! and other books and nearly 2,000 articles, essays, and short stories) has an excellent article in a recent issue of The Writer magazine, "Plot vs. character." In it, Kathy quotes A.M. Jenkins, the award-winning author of Damage, Beating Heart, and the Printz Honor Book Repossessed:
"I'm a very disorganized writer who gets through a manuscript mostly on feel. This means a ton of rewriting, moving things, gutting scenes, cannibalizing them if needed."
That makes me feel much better about my own slow progress through my WATERSPELL trilogy, as I grope my way to the final pages of all three books.

It also underscores the value of keeping a bonepile. Things that get moved (moved out), scenes that are gutted, can go into the bonepile, where they'll be available later for cannibalizing.

I know some writers keep every draft of a novel, just renaming them Draft 1, Draft 2, etc., as they revise their work. I don't do that. I don't care to be reminded of just how many drafts I've been through. I make my latest round of edits in the master file, and if I cut something substantial, I paste it into my bonepile file.

That way, I have only the "good bits" to sort through, the material that might actually prove useful, whether I eventually restore it intact to its original location, or I use it as a skeleton to hang better words on, or I cannibalize it and incorporate the meat of it into the story somewhere else.

Bonepiles give me the confidence to cut some "good bits" that might not be working as well as they should where they are. I can remove them, but toss them clattering into the pile with all the other potentially workable bits, and that way I haven't lost them permanently. My bonepiles can bleach in the sun for however long it takes until I'm sure I don't need them anymore.

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