One of the topics discussed at last week’s NE SCBWI conference was the importance of ridding your manuscript of overgrown scenes, useless characters, and runaway descriptions. If you don’t pay attention to where your story is going, there is a good change it will run wild.
Wild is exactly what happened with my spider plan—the one that currently hogs the ledge of our bay window. In the past year, the plant has thrived, and now our front yard view is no longer paramount. There is something in the way, and that something is green.
I have had this plant for years. My mother first brought it home in the mid-nineties. It flourished until the day she moved to North Carolina, which is when I promised to take care of it. At the time, I knew little about caring for plants, especially indoor ones, but I feigned confidence. Shortly after she left, the plant began to wither. I watered it. Perhaps too much. Perhaps too little. Whatever the reason, its future became evident—all too soon. There was nothing pretty about it.
I tried to ignore the signs. Stems curled at the ends where the green had turned the color of dirt. Pieces of plant dropped to the ground, where they lay lifeless, until I was inspired to vacuum. And there was the fact that my husband suggested, more than once, that the garbage can was an alternative habitat for the spider plant.
The signs continued, and whenever my mother asked how the plant was doing, I changed the subject. Then one day, it dawned on me. I was killing something that meant a lot to my mother, something I had promised to take care of. When I shared my epiphany with my husband, he said, “It’s only a plant, Betsy.”
Paying heed to the experts’ advice, I tried new ways to aid the plant’s recovery. I talked to the thing. I begged it. I even cursed at it, and then, with luck, patience, hard work, and perseverance (all traits a successful writer needs) the spider plant leaped from the edge of death and responded with vigor to all the attention that I gave it.
Again, my husband reminded me, “It’s only a plant, Betsy.”
Yes, but it was so much more . . . which brings me back to writing.
We all have those darlings in our manuscripts, you know, the characters we come to know and love. Their every appearance on scene gives us the greatest of pleasure. They make us laugh. They make us cry. They offer absolutely nothing to the plot. Nothing. Aside from our darlings, there are those long and flowing passages filled with evocative descriptions that also offer nothing to the plot. Whether it’s a character or a description or a setting or a superfluous scene, the presence of certain elements can thwart the very essence of our manuscript and change the view we intend to create. The reader cannot see through the window into our story. There is something in the way. Like an overgrown spider plant.
What does one do?
A professional or seasoned writer will tell you to get rid of them. “Kill them,” they say. “Toss them from the pages of your manuscript without remorse.” “Have a drink and relish in hitting the delete button over and over again. It will feel great!”
These conversations are typically one-sided and contain little or no feeling of mercy or remorse. You, on the other hand, are overwhelmed with the sense of loss, guilt, and shock, mostly because the expert’s suggestion comes with added enthusiasm and much delight over the process. You sit there speechless. They pump their fists in the air, hungry for another stimulating experience of killing beloved darlings; of deleting entire chapters with the tap of one button.
I understand the experience now, and I will tell you that it is freeing—and fun—to let your darlings go. I do hug and kiss them and apologize profusely first, oh, and I promise to use them in another manuscript, perhaps feature them as the main character. (I will do anything to lessen my guilt connected with the characters I create, or rather listen to when they appear from nowhere to tell me their story.) As for superfluous scenes or descriptions, I have an Everything Deleted out of Necessity document where all of this goes. You never know when you may need something.
It is for the best of your manuscript. Trust me. I feel your pain. I know your struggle. I am there too—not with the writing—but with the plant: that over-grown spider plant that continues to grow and grow and sneer at my husband with glee while it expands across the windowsill and redefines our view of the front yard.
While I have not yet tackled the plant, it seems I may not need to. Not only does the green beast irk my husband, but now also our two cats—and our two visiting cats, who were supposed to stay with us for one week, and now six months have gone by. After incessant arguing over which one cat gets to sit on the limited portion of sill unclaimed by the green beast, they cats have joined forces. They discuss their strategy at night while I am trying to sleep, as cats will do. What exactly is their Kitty Plan of Attack? They bat at the baby plants, chew on the leaves; use their teeth to pull on the dangling offspring. If my view of the front yard does not soon improve, at least there will be room for two cats—not one—to soak in the sun. May this bring some peace to our household, because I am not about to kill my mother’s plant. Even though, it is just a plant.
And yet, it is so much more . . .
In closing, I leave you with a quote of my own. (This week I seem to be stuck on W words.)
The words we write must awaken the senses of the reader. They must bear weight to the world we have created. Why? You want the readers to wonder, to wrestle with their own thoughts, and to always want more. Meaningless words wander aimlessly across the page in a waste of space. They attribute nothing wondrous at all, except to become a wall, which stands in the way of our readers’ wants and needs. Betsy Devany 5/11