Pruning Your Words

Asphodel Within a Tangle

Imagine me, sitting behind a table with my books spread out before me.  A lady with a pleasant smile comes up and starts examining the wide variety of offerings.

NICE LADY: “So when you write a book” – she is holding a copy of Asphodel – “do you plan it all out in advance?”

ME: “Not really.  I start with an impulse or idea – in this case, the idea of someone waking up in a tower and not knowing why she is there – and then I go on the adventure with my characters.  I’d get bored if I knew everything that was going to happen in advance.”

NICE LADY: “So, that means you don’t really plot?”

ME: “Oh, I definitely plot.  I simply plot as I’m writing, and then afterwards.”

NICE LADY: “Afterwards?”

ME: “That’s right.  After I’ve finished the story, I know what it’s about, so I can cut away the bits and pieces that don’t serve the story.  It’s like pruning a tree or shrub or even a tangle of vines.  Getting rid of extra material makes what’s left stronger.”

NICE LADY: “Oh…  Don’t you feel that wastes your time?”

ME: “Not at all.  Even those writers who outline in advance find that they need to do some shaping and trimming when they’re done.  It’s just a question of when you do the pruning.  In my case, I do most of it after I’ve written the full piece, not before.”

NICE LADY: “I’d think that plotting as you write would be confusing.  How do you keep track of who’s doing what and where?”

ME: “In my case, I do what I call reverse outlining.

 “This helps me keep track of who is doing what where and even when.  I talk about my technique both on my blog and in one of the essays in my book on writing: Wanderings on Writing.”

NICE LADY: “Thanks!  I’ll definitely keep what you’re saying in mind.  I thought I had to know everything about my book and characters before I started.  This is a relief.”

ME: “Glad to help.  Just remember, it’s okay to explore as you write but, at some point, you will need to free your plot from the tangle.  Otherwise, the story you’re trying to tell will end up strangled.”


4 Responses to “Pruning Your Words”

  1. James Mendur Says:

    The tension between letting the characters (your subconscious / artistic impulse / whatever) tell you what happened, and then pulling back and saying “I’m the author, this is what REALLY happened”, is a tricky one for me. Then I remind myself what numerous authors have said over the years (I first heard it from Emma Bull at an F&SF convention): Authors lie for a living. The characters can tell me what “really” happened, and then I can lie to turn it into a story with a plot because, as other authors have said, in various forms, “Life doesn’t have to make sense; fiction does.”

    And as for cutting some of your words never being a waste of time, I’ve heard other authors say that, too. One says often: All writing is practice, including what you sell. And he never considers a trip down a side road to be a waste, even if he prunes it out of his story, because writing is what he does for fun, even if he does make a living at it.

    Thank you for sharing your perspective on this. I’m no gardener, but the gardening analogies are nice.

  2. King Ben's Grandma Says:

    It almost sounds like you’re creating a topiary. Planting, growing, building the frame, then trimming until you have the object you envisioned.

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