Last month we talked about gathering up as many ideas as we could with relentless capture. This month, the focus swings to discarding things that aren’t working by creating a special place to save the pieces you trim away.
“Don’t throw that food away. What about the starving kids in China?” Maybe you’re not old enough to have heard this while you were growing up. Even so, to most people, “wastefulness” is a dirty word.
Few of us are eager to engage in activities that are a waste of time. Think about the legend of Sisyphus. He tried to cheat death, although it finally caught up with him. Once in the afterlife, he was given a punishment of rolling a stone up a hill, only to have it roll back down before it reached the top, leaving him to start all over again. In this scenario, wasted effort isn’t just daunting; it’s hell!
In our creative work, we are often faced with throwing away the fruits of our labors. Knitters realizing they’ve dropped a stitch need to unravel. Sewers who’ve created a sloppy seam must pull out the seam ripper. Painters who’ve made an ugly stroke need to paint over it or figure out how to work it in. And writers who’ve taken their story in the wrong direction need to become acquainted with the delete key.
Or do they?
I live in Wisconsin, out in the country where, if I were hard-pressed, I could run outside and quickly touch a cow in a scavenger hunt or a weird dare. It’s dairy country. It’s cheese country. Around here, you can buy cheese directly from the places that make it, which is great fun. Usually, it’s cheaper, because it hasn’t needed to be shipped. Even better, if you’re lucky, you can find something called “trim.”
Cheese is created in large rectangular molds, then sliced into consumer sized portions. At each end of the cheese loaf, the product isn’t squared off like the rest of the slices, but rather, softly curved from the cheesemaking process, like the heels on the end of each loaf of bread. Much like bread, where people often cut off the crusts, the curved end of each cheese loaf is sliced away to ensure a consistently squared-off product. These cheese ends taste perfectly fine—they’re just considered to be cosmetically undesirable.
I imagine that many companies simply shred the edges or sell them to industrial clients. Around here, though, these rounded ends are sold from the factory at a discount. They’re packaged up and given the “trim” label, and are often priced thirty to fifty percent lower than the squared-off portions of the very same batch.
Now that you’re wondering if there’s any cheese in your fridge, I’ll bet you’re also asking yourself, “Okay. But what does that have to do with writing?”
Words Like Cheese
If you are one of those rare souls who love blitzing out the deadwood from your projects, I commend you. This article is for the rest of us.
Nowadays, when you are working digitally, it is not necessary to throw your work away. It may be necessary to remove the words from the document, though, especially when you have the gnawing sense that there’s a certain point in which your story has simply felt wrong. I believe that the act of selecting that text-blob and hitting the delete key is too difficult for many writers to do, and so they instead keep struggling along, trying to leave this section that is clearly not right exactly where it is, and to make the wrong part work. Often, this struggle takes more time and effort than it would have to select the part that seemed ill fitting, move it to another document for safe keeping, and then start fresh.
When I was writing the sixth PsyCop novel, GhosTV, I realized I had a mess of a manuscript and I needed to somehow break it into smaller and more manageable parts that I could move around and analyze. I happened upon the writing software Scrivener, and it was so useful for me that I never switched back to a traditional word processor. Rather than working in one giant document, you work in a folder that contains multiple documents that you can break into chapters or even scenes. What’s especially useful is that I can dedicate other sections to planning and research.
Here, you see a screenshot of my Turbulence project. I’ve got the trim from Red-Eye Dawn selected in the sidebar, and the text of that shows up in the main window. Maybe I’ll go back and nibble on that trim at some point, if I recall a good description or line of dialog I want to re-introduce to my story. Or maybe I’ll never look at it again. Either way, I’m freed from the psychological barrier that might stop me from hitting delete—the barrier that could have kept me writing along down a road that wasn’t necessarily the way I wanted to be traveling.
Sometimes you even have “temporary trim,” a sentence or two that’s going to happen soon, but not just yet. In Scrivener, there’s a note area off to the side where you can jot down these “temp” items and reassure yourself you won’t forget them.
If you’re working in other digital disciplines, it’s easy enough to save versions of your project periodically so you can backtrack at any point and try a new direction. But what about physical media—crafts, painting, music?
There truly are no undos in certain disciplines. When you sing that live note or make that mark, it’s there. I think the trim in these physical disciplines is more psychological. It’s the knowledge that occasionally you’re going to make a misstep, and that’s perfectly fine. Every painting, every song, every move will not be a masterpiece. Instead of beating yourself up about how your project didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, decide if there’s anything to be learned from the mistakes. If so, take note and use that knowledge next time. If not, chalk it up to practice. Either way, “trim” off the part that’s not working, and move along to the next project.
Scrivener can be found for Mac, PC and Linux at the Literature and Latte website. An iOS version is in the works.
Author and artist Jordan Castillo Price is the owner of JCP Books and the author of many award-winning gay paranormal thrillers, including PsyCop and Magic Mansion. Her latest serially-written series, Turbulence, is a twisted foray into the Bermuda Triangle. Check it out at JCPbooks.com