When you see a news story on the local school administrator who embezzled $120,000 over the years or one about a big, multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme, what do you think about? In my younger days, my reaction was always “how stupid.” These days, while I still don’t condone the behavior, I think more about how that person went from an upstanding member of society to criminal. Often, there are drugs or gambling involved, so limited sympathy there but most of the time, these people didn’t wake up one day and decide to commit a major crime. The administrator ‘borrowed’ $500 from petty cash, and probably paid it back. They did this again here and there. Then one day, they didn’t pay it back and no one noticed. Before long, they were taking a few thousand. Over the years, it adds up. When they are caught they look like a fool and an arch criminal but I’m sure they didn’t think of it that way at the time because they were just looking at the next step, not the big picture.
Same thing can happen to writers, at least this one 🙂 In addition to the lessons about niggling doubts and characterization I recently posted about, another thing I keep bumping into is when I struggle with a patch of dialogue, a description, or even an entire scene or chapter. I’ll find myself polishing and revising. Eventually, I’ll step back and realize the issue is not how to get a turn of phrase just right, it’s the entire existence of the offending prose that’s at question. I’m struggling with it because it doesn’t fit the story.
For instance, am I finding it hard to describe a particular tree at the edge of a cliff? Yes, it’s a nice image I have in mind but is it really necessary for the story? Maybe it is best if I just remove the stupid tree.
Or more recently, I’ve been working on my second draft of SOTA . Second chapter, there’s a scene with five people in it that I found myself revising and revising again. Finally, I stepped back. First one of the characters isn’t really necessary for the book, let alone the scene. Bang, he’s gone (sorry Belkis). Next, I’ve often given advice on critters, when there are a lot of characters speaking in a scene, look for ways to decompose the scene into multiple ones with fewer speakers, ideally one on one. Once I pulled my head up and stopped trying to revise the five-person scene, I realized it would be better broken up: I can probably cut 1200 words from the chapter while still establishing the necessary things and make it a whole lot more fun for the reader.
It’s sometimes a tough call: you don’t want to give up too soon on something. But, for me as a rule of thumb, if it takes more than 2-3 tweaks, it’s worth considering whether it needs to be there at all. At that point, my advice is to consider omitting it entirely or look for a different way to work that section. Maybe one long scene can be replaced with two short ones. Maybe that table you are having trouble describing can be a wall-hanging instead. If a bit of dialogue doesn’t sound right after five tries and you can’t omit it, maybe use a different character to deliver it or move it to interior monologue.
It’s the old forest for the trees problem. But just as some criminals walk themselves off a figurative cliff because they were only looking at their feet, writers can also get hung-up on a particular patch where the solution is to remove or re-conceive the patch, not to try polishing it forever.