Thursday, September 21, 2006

If You Love Someone, Kill Them (Metaphorically Speaking)

Unsurprising to anyone who knows me, there have been times when I feel the urge to kill someone. Not to the point of actually doing it, of course, though with my neighbors, I've come close.

You may wonder just what it is about the couple upstairs (and the two ill-tempered brat-monsters they call "children") that makes me want to toss them into Mount St. Helens. Without getting into too much detail, they are rude, selfish, loud, insane, and utterly unconcerned about the welfare of anyone else in the apartment building in which Wife and I reside.

If it isn't clear, I despise these loathsome excuses for humanity, and that makes me want to kill them. I'm sure you know the feeling.

But what about killing those you love? If you write fiction, your answer is, Been there, done that.

A recent article in a reputable publication chronicled the inability of a prominent author to kill off his characters, even those who should be 293 years old. Being that I have had similar struggles — and, as I streamline my novel and remove sections with as much delicacy as a farmhand wielding a scythe — I wonder how much difficulty other writers have with this, even the really good ones. (Especially the really good ones.)

Rinse and repeat

The old writing saw about "giving away your children" is sadly true. Writers tend to fall in love with sections of their work that really has no business being in a particular piece. This is true for both scenes and characters. The reasoning is that because it entertains us, the writers, it's got to be good, no?

When you have to cut out something that is well-written, it's like admitting to your partner that she was right about any domestic matter. Humiliating, yes, but necessary to keep the peace.

For instance, there was one scene in my novel that chronicled a meeting between the teen-age narrator and his (much older) tormentor, taking place at the latter's house, a faux-Graceland, complete with gates and jungle room. The older man was a professional wrestler who had graduated magna cum laude from Yale and had one of the world's largest collections of contemporary Jesus art.

I have to admit: the scene had real drama, snappy dialog, and (dare I say it) some evocative writing. The house is rendered in fine detail, and the characters are full and flawed. The scene just rocks, in my humble opinion.

So of course, I had to nuke it, because the scene had absolutely nothing to do with the story. Ostensibly a plot device, this meeting turned out to be a nice set piece to show off my chops and nothing more. It was hard to pull the trigger, but I had to rid myself of about 2,000 words that were pretty durn good.

If you write fiction long enough, you will end up offing more characters than a serial killer. I know of one writer who doesn't rewrite — a brilliant talent, to be sure — who simply starts from scratch when a story isn't working out. Us mere mortals can't indulge in such luxuries. We revise and revise and revise (and sometimes, it still sucks).

More killing needed

I've ruined perfectly good short stories with extraneous crap, which to some might be the natural inclination of a novelist, but to others, the indication of a someone who just can't edit for shit.

What characters or scenes have you had to trash from your fiction? Or, better yet, what novels did you wish had trashed a few characters and scenes? I'll start off with "Anna Karenina," chock full of so much lard that it resembles the vat at a rendering plant, and let you take it from there.

If you want to rant about your asshole neighbors, that's cool, too.