Two Steps Forward, One and a Half Back

I’ve been wrestling with a new short story lately in a way that’s a bit uncommon for me. I’ve got a pretty strong outline for it, the characters are quite clear to me, and the plot has had plenty of time to suggest itself. In fact, I’ve written nearly ten pages on it. Unfortunately, it was getting nowhere fast.

As I’ve mentioned before, I write pretty polished first drafts, not by virtue of being a particularly good writer, but because I constantly revise as I go along. Most every paragraph in the initial draft of my manuscripts have probably been rewritten three times over. In this situation, though, because the story is not coming together as cogently as I’d like, I’m suffering from some paralysis. I have a hard time going forward because I don’t think what I’m writing really fits structurally, and that makes me want to stop what I’m doing to go back to my outline and think a little harder about how this story’s going to work. I found myself not wanting to put in the effort of writing pages of a story that I’m sure will just get cut.

So here’s what I just learned, and I’m surprised that it’s taken me this long: Don’t stop writing because you’re afraid material will be useless in the final draft. Even writing left on the cutting room floor can be useful in numerous ways. Too much material is fine; too little is an unmitigated disaster. It’s perfectly okay for me to write thirty pages worth of short story and cut out twenty that don’t work. Tonight, in fact, I just cut four pages from the story because I knew I had to go a different direction with the plot. This story feels a bit like a maze — hitting a dead end, backtracking, going left when previously I went right. But those pages I tossed informed a good detail about the character that I can use elsewhere. They fill out backstory that may never come to light on the page, but give me a stronger grasp on my protagonist.

It’s kind of liberating, in a way, to be able to let go of what I’m doing and just write, knowing that what’s being put on the page may never see the light of day. It’s important to remember that the final draft of the story—the version that you’re going to put out into the world for people to read—won’t bear the scars of those parts that were cut out. The reader has no investment in the process, only what gets presented on the page. Whatever it takes to get there, it has to be worth it.

At last, tonight, this story has started to take shape for me, and it’s only because of words you’ll never read.

My favorite line I wrote today: He was sweating again, and the dust of the boxcar drew to him like a magnet. He felt keenly aware of the scuzz of his threadbare clothes, his dreadlocked hair and tangled beard, the grime on his skin and under his fingernails. He could smell it from under his boots, the black soles of his feet, the gnarled toenails, the blisters and sores.

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