Monday, February 7, 2011

You Always Hurt the Words You Love

Originally, I was going to title this post killing your babies. This being a writing site, I was of course referring to your literary babies. But when I googled “killing your babies,” I decided maybe I’d come up with a different term. So let’s go with, “You Need to Hurt the Words You Love.” This is in answer to David Glenn, who asked, “What does an author do if there’s something (like a character or a situation) that they really want to put into their book, but it doesn’t do anything to help with the plot?”

The answer is probably not what he—or many of us want to hear. Have you ever come up with a great character, scene, or turn of phrase that you are absolutely dying to use ion a story? Maybe you even wrote it out, planning to use it at a certain point in your book, only to discover that as you wrote the story, that character, scene, or phrase didn’t really fit anymore.

You try to make it fit, like Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters shoving and crunching their feet in a vain effort to slide into the glass slipper. But when your critique group, beta readers, or heaven forbid, your editor read it they nixed your baby. What to do? It’s a great scene. The character is so hilariously unpredictable. The sentence in a work of literary masterpiece.

I could beat around the bush here, but let’s be brutally honest. Cut it. Chop it. Kill it. Destroy it. Trying to keep a favorite scene that doesn’t fit into your story is like sticking an exotic orchid into a vase of daises. By itself it might be beautiful. Your character really might be as spectacular as you think she is (although she probably is not.) But it doesn’t matter. The orchid doesn’t fit among the daisies. Rather than adding to their beauty, it draws attention away from them in such a way that it actually harms the arrangement.

That’s what your “baby” does to your story. Even if you think you’ve camouflaged it well, the readers won’t be fooled. They’re reading an exciting beach thriller and unexpectedly come across a character that reads like something out of Lord of The Rings. Not only does the character seem out of place, but it pulls the reader out of the story that does fit.

More than one editor has suggested writers take their favorite line and cut it out of their books. That may seem extreme, but the reasoning is sound. If there is a particular scene or line which you love above the rest of your story, there’s a good chance it doesn’t fit with the rest of your writing.

Am I recommending that you cut out your favorite line? No. I’m not quite that heartless. But I do recommend that you look closely at anything that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the story, whether you hate it or love it. Keeping the reader “in” the story is much more important than the brilliance of any one piece.


Laura said...

And the way to tell if you've successfully done this is when someone asks you to give them your favorite line in your book and your answer is, "Uhhh, do you have a copy I can look at?" And then you flip randomly through your book hoping you wrote SOMETHING that sounds good enough to be considered "that special line."

I only say this because it's happened to me. Was I supposed to admit that? Doh.

David Glenn said...

I had to get rid of a certain character I really wanted to have in my story, but he was taking too much away from the story. Thanks for answering this. Hopefully I'll be able to think of another question for you to blog about. Oh, and I'll probably go to that Writer's Boot Camp.

Dave Cebrowski said...

So do you save that character or scene for another book/story/etc? Or do you just throw it away?

J Scott Savage said...


I know the feeling. I struggle every time I have to do a reading.


The bootcamp is just for teens, but storymakers is in May. You should definitely go to that.


If I think there is even a small chance I can use something later, I save it.

Alyssa said...

This is really good advice- I had to cut a character from a book I'm writing... it was a bit hard for me to do but now I realize that I simply can't do it.
Anyways, um, I'm a new reader, seeing as I'm currently reading the first Farworld book- I really like it so far! I'm glad I took my friends' advice- they both said that once you finish the second book that I'll be craving for the third or something. Well, guess I'd better prepare myself for a big cliffhanger (seeing as I went bizzerk for a week after I finished Fablehaven 4)!

James Blevins said...

Excellent advice, as usual, Mr. Savage!

I couldn't help but laugh to myself when you gave the example of including a character that sounds like it came from "Lord of the Rings". The reason that amuses me is because of Tom Bombadil.

Tolkien should have butchered that baby like Peter Jackson (or whoever it was who wrote the screenplay) did for the movie. As it turns out, the reason Tom Bombadil appears in FOTR is because Tolkien had already created the character and had written a story about him. So he incorporated that into the book. Perhaps that is why I want to murder Tom every time I read the book, because he needs to be hacked into bits with an elvish blade, and Tolkien didn't have the backbone to do it.

Feel free to disagree, but I think Tom Bombadil is the perfect example of what not to do.

cheeze_it_22 said...

Hi! I'm a young reader (still in elementry school)
I was looking through my messy closet and I found the book "Water Keep". I suddenly remeberd that I've met you in person, and you even signed my book!(it's been years though) I ran to my laptop and went to this website to find you've only written up to the "Land Keep". I fully understand it takes time to write a book, but when will you finish "Air Keep"?
-You little fan,

Mark said...

Dang it Jeff, that's just so right that it's annoying. Of course I wouldn't destroy the bit you cut, you might find that it fits into some other story you're working on. Then again, who has time to look through all of those old notes that were great when ideas started and now... well, they are the orphans in the third drawer down of the file cabinet that you never open.

J Scott Savage said...


It would be a privilege to drive you bizzerk again!


Tom Bombadil is a perfect example of a character that wondered aimlessly into a story and should have been shown the door at once.


Check out Friday's post for more Air Keep news.


Why do people keep telling me I'm annoying?????!!!!!