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Monday, January 9, 2012

Method to my Madness Monday: The Things I've Left Behind

My latest novel is in some ways my greatest challenge. Is this because it’s deeply personal?  No. I’ve written novels like that before. One of them was so emotionally close that it nearly killed me.

Okay, this book is not that challenging – thankfully. But it is my biggest test plot-wise, and in its overall breadth, if that makes any sense. My novels thus far have covered a very limited period of time. One of them covered a summer. Another spanned ten months, the other two – maybe a year. This novel covers forty years of a life. Talk about an epic journey!

A lot of scenes are required in a book like this. I’ve been told a novel must be in at least 80% scene. Problem: scenes take up more room than summary/telling. With so much space being occupied by extra scenes in this revision (because of the 80% rule), it sadly followed that some plot points needed to be dropped – or the endeavor would be 1,000 pages long!

Have you read The Things They Carried? (You should.) In the midst of writing this novel, I’m mourning for the things I’ve left behind.

The first thing to go was the most poignant love affair the character experienced. Why? First, because it was too much of a diversion from the main theme of the book. Second, because it required too much of a set-up and explanation – for which there was just no room!

The second thing to go was a set of secondary characters who were quite amusing and animated, but they also took up too much room for the limited amount of time they were part of my character’s life. I couldn't justify building up a personal trainer (pardon the pun) who would only be around for a few years, or a shrink who was present for a few months. In real life we gain insight from many people we encounter. In fiction, it’s richer and more satisfying to meld these people into one strong secondary character, who will act as the main character's “go to” for the bulk of the story.

The third thing to go was a collection of funny and poignant scenes that did not pull their weight in yanking the plot forward. They were well-written and satisfying and I hope to publish them in a collection of short stories, because they hold up on their own – but in this novel they were like boulders strapped around the plot’s waist, weighing it down.

So many pages have been cut – valiant, fallen soldiers who fought the good fight but made the ultimate sacrifice for the cause. Writing a novel is in fact like dodging bullets on a battlefield, but they’re the ultimate friendly-fire because the sharp shooter aiming at you is you. This is impossible to fathom if you’re not a writer.

It’s hard to fathom even if you are one.

My Aunt Olga the violinist once told me an amusing musician’s break-up line: “I love you darling, but the season is over.”

The same may be said to the things I’ve left behind.


  1. I haven't read The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien but I just read the blurb for and am intrigued. All the best with your latest novel. Some of the best stories for me are those that evoke such strong emotions -so strong I carry them and the story with me even when I'm not reading.

  2. Absolutely, Na! Well said. The Catcher in the Rye was the book that did that for me when I was a teen. Later, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. The Things They Carried is like that, too.

  3. I have read The Things They Carried - it was our community's Big Read a few years ago. So fortunately I was able to hear Tim O'Brien in person too. I expect to read it again soon.

    But anyway - this is a timely post for me as I am doing the exact same thing. I love your descriptions of the things you are leaving behind - they will help me to identify the end of the season for certain aspects of my own story.