My mouse cursor flew down the computer screen leaving a wake of highlighted text in its path like a digital comet. One thousand, one hundred and twenty three words: over a thousand hard-earned scraps of storyline; words representing a mountain of time spent researching and fact checking; words with plot details that I can’t easily include otherwise. Such an amount of text would have fetched me a respectable bounty in the past. The highlighted paragraphs stared back me from the monitor like helpless children after a disaster—praying that the worst has passed with my cursory editing session the day before.
I’m getting better at recognizing my own garbage.
It wasn’t the words that were garbage—they had all been carefully selected from amongst their peers for their precision of effect. The material was also not at fault—while neither an academic nor historical text, it covered the general operation of a turn-of-the-century steel mill accurately and succinctly. Sadly, the sickness was more terminal than either of such symptoms, and amputation my only recourse. It wasn’t an easy decision to hit that Delete button, but I couldn’t argue with the anonymous person’s accusing words on my phone: I hate when authors cop out by using a flashback to fill holes in their plot. Damn.
I remember how triumphant I felt when I had worked out how to provide context to my main character—a young boy on his own—in a setting where most of the things around him should be alien and unrecognizable. Easy, I thought, he took a field trip when he was younger. So, I sat down and over the course of an evening wrote, then re-wrote, one thousand, one hundred and twenty three words describing the smelting furnaces, crucibles, rock crushers, and all other machines and materials required to make steel from iron ore. My reasoning was that the boy in my story would be able to have a richer interaction with his surroundings if he at least had a general working knowledge of the different components. I was willing to stretch the fabric of plausibility to its tearing point before I read those words—but afterwards I couldn’t argue their aptness.
My clever flashback to the field trip was merely a band-aide on a bullet hole—just how much could the boy learn and retain about the complex process of milling steel in one second grade trip? Sooner or later he was bound to need to workout the unknowns of his environment and then I would either be back where I started or forced to insult my readers by bestowing a near-genius level of memory retention on an eight year old boy. I won’t say that all such readers deserve better—invariably some are likely to be foul people with a small dose of bad literary karma heading their way—but I respect my work too much at this point to try and sidestep the thorny patches I’ve made. After all, I’m here to get my hands dirty and scratched. Besides, there are plenty of words—stacked neatly in my head awaiting their turn—to write the book the correct way: by crafting the story.
If you’ve never highlighted a large piece of your work and deleted it, consider yourself temporarily lucky. It’s probably less satisfying than crumpling up sheets of paper and throwing them into the wastebasket as most of our predecessors did, but, like hanging up on someone from a cell phone, the ease and abruptness mercifully shortens the suspense. Even though I’m retired and working from home on my writing, my days are as plagued as anyone else’s by all of the little fires that pop up underfoot from a ground that always seems to be smoldering. Indoctrinated as I am to military life, early mornings have always been the rule. Whether in garrison or some remote location on the map, the Army has a perverse obsession about getting an early start to the day. Unlike my time in the service however, writing requires more mental alertness of me than can be mustered at such early hours and I have returned to the nocturnal hours of my youth. The words that I led out behind the woodshed and put out of their misery took me an entire evening’s writing session just to get down on the screen—saying nothing of the time spent researching.
I consider myself fortunate to have been raised at a time and in a place that shop class was offered at my school. Among the many lessons that I learned there—lessons that I have applied a thousands times over, unlike algebra—I can vaguely recall glassing over the smelting processes for iron and steel. If, however, you were to put a gun to my head and told me to write about them factually in a fictional story, well, it’s unlikely the outcome would be good either way. When I realized I was going to write about late 19th century steel mills in America, I knew I would be well-rewarded for a simple internet search. I watched YouTube videos. I sat through PowerPoint presentations crudely crafted by college students and industry insiders alike. Like any other literary dog fresh on the trail of interesting research information, I wandered off on sidetracks: common and brutal injuries of steel mill workers; the collapse of the industry around America’s Great Lakes region; the advancement of the smelting furnace over time. When the orgy of classic steel making information ended I had far more material than I needed for several books—my story isn’t even about steel mills, they just feature in it. Poor Jesse would need to be William Kelly, (he’s considered to be the father of modern steel production—not that you’ll ever learn in it my book). I even went so far as to tuck the excess information away for future use.
No; the words brought to die on the alter of quality writing did not give their lives in vain. They gave them so that the finished work will—hopefully—be more coherent and thus, more enjoyable. They died so that the other words, those left behind to carry on the burden of telling the tale, might live. The only way that I, novice writer that I am, could move on from the loss of such worthy words was to memorialize them—and I hope I have done so here. I had to go back over this post like any other of my work: cutting here; adding there; weighing each turn of phrase to ensure precise meaning. I wanted it to be a worthy memorial. The end result: one thousand, one hundred and twenty three words—exactly what I lost.
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