Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Cut

My brain feels like it's about to explode with all the new ideas and inspiration I've been having lately (which I suppose is a good thing, considering the alternative.)  I'm about 2/3rds of the way through Only Yesterday, An Informal History of the 1920s and I cannot rave enough about this book (however, this blog is not for book reviews, so I shall keep my raving to myself.)  Suffice it to say that having a better understanding of the era in which my novel takes place has opened my mind up to the potential for new characters who reflect the "zeitgeist" of that period.  I'm not talking about 2D cameos, but flesh-and-bones individuals with unique quirks and values which will be enhanced and reflected by the spirit of the times.  

Am I being too vague?  Probably, so here's a concrete example:  Frederick Lewis Allen's book highlights the wave of materialism and aggressive salesmanship that arose during the 1920s.  My manuscript is completely devoid of any allusion to this because, well, I knew nothing about it prior to reading Only Yesterday.  So the idea came to me, what if I put a salesman character in my novel?  And suddenly I had a clear vision of him - Herbert Payton, Lila's father, will be that salesman.  There are so many ramifications and character development possibilities with this, for both Herbert and Lila, that I'd be here all night if I started listing them.  The bottom line is that this is a good example of how a little research can go a long way in inspiring characterization.

For those of you who have read my first draft, you might be asking, "Wait, isn't Lila's dad's name Wilfred, and isn't he dead?  And what about her adopted father, Arthur?"  That leads me to my next point of discussion ... I've decided that a few (drastic) changes are in order for Draft #2.  Remember when I told you that I was on the hunt for any signs of weakness within my characters (as in, weakness in my writing, not their personalities)?  Well, after careful consideration, I came up with a short list (which turned out not to be so short) of characters who aren't pulling their weight.  And here it is [BEs, you may be a little shocked by who didn't make the cut ...]

  • Cora Morse [yup, former protagonist Cora]
  • Arthur Morse
  • Edward Whitaker
  • Tobin Whitaker
  • Lila Payton
  • Rosemarie Dauber
  • Marcus Torrington
That's right people, I'm cutting my two title characters.  So now "The Whitaker Boys" has become "Untitled Work in Progress" yet again.  Why am I doing it?  Because Elizabeth Lyon's wise words about consolidating characters have been haunting me for weeks.  Why have four love interests between Lila and Rosemarie (Edward, Tobin, Clayton Starwell - the politician, and Marcus) when I can have two, who will be reworked in such a way so as to bring out essential character revelations and narrative thrust.  I am also going to consolidate and trim down families as follows:

  • Lila will live with her widowed father, Herbert, and Ophelia (the one you know, but don't exactly love ... yet.)
  • Rosemarie's family remains the same, essentially, although I plan to flesh out her parents' characters to make them more 3D and compelling in their own right.  I'm also toying with giving Rosemarie a younger brother, but only if the storyline justifies this.
  • Marcus's whole family has been scrapped, except for the grandfather, who will be alive during the first part of the novel.  I am also transplanting Marcus into Edward's old family, because I'm quite attached to Minnie, his alcoholic, soft-hearted mother.  I'm still on the fence as to whether or not I should keep the younger brothers, Barton and Clyde, because, as of now, they're dead weight.  Farris Whitaker (Edward's philandering father) will be revamped and renamed Oliver Marcus Torrington II, and will become Marcus's hard-nosed businessman father.
  • And Assemblyman Clayton Starwell is going to be tweaked and given a much more significant role which may cause a lot of upset amongst all three viewpoint characters ...
That's probably more detail than you cared to know; the upshot is that my changes were motivated by a desire to minimize bodies and maximize conflict, tension, and most importantly, reader interest!

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO:  Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and take a hatchet to your manuscript.  For some writers, this may require chopping away at characters, while for others, it might mean chopping down plotlines.  (It looks like I'm going to be doing a bit of both.)  A novice writer might be inclined to think that this kind of massive editing is a sign of failure, but I believe it's the exact opposite.  How many times have you read an interview with a published author who says something along the lines of, "After working on a novel for a year, I realized the story was lousy and the characters were 2D and boring, so I ultimately decided to scrap the whole thing.  Then one day, I got the inspiration to write [insert Pulitzer Prize-winning novel here] and the rest is history."  So take heart, Novice Writer - if you're scrapping huge chunks of your first draft, you're in good company. :-)


  1. Am I too understand your novel takes place in the 20's? That is awesome.. I think that was such an interesting period. Full abrupt change and subtle transition..

    I'm glad I stumbled across your blog. I'd love to follow this story.

  2. Thanks! I know I've posted this like 200x already, but I'll say it again ... if you're even the slightest bit interested in the era, you've gotta read Frederick Lewis Allen's book. It's so well crafted and really gives you a detailed picture of that fascinating time period.