Dead darlings

Maybe it’s because of the recent “stories that didn’t make it” Sunday Quickies post, maybe it’s because Rachel’s post about letting people be people has stayed with me, but I’ve been thinking about all the discarded work I wrote as a kid. When I was just starting to write with an eye toward creating something beyond a few journal entries, I shied away from writing actual narrative in favor of writing background: long pseudo-historical articles chronicling the Crown of Suchandsuch or the murky prophecies of the five oracles, all of which would be fulfilled by the novel I had in mind — if I ever got around to writing it.

Needless to say, I never did write the full story, not to a finished state.  I invested so much time and energy and, most of all, imagination on these side stories that I never got to the real story.  The phrase “murder your darlings” originally applies to prose rather than backstory, but in this case I think it’s still relevant.  Once I learned to focus on one narrative rather than the weird little bits at the side and how my characters were totally justified in having super-special changing eye color (shut up, I was in high school), then I actually started writing stories.

However, there’s a reason those things were and are my darlings.  They caught my attention, drew out the “isn’t this cool?” effect that I’ve since learned to follow, and were in essence the first sparks of a story.  They were the equivalent of a zeroth draft, something to be written before the story ever got started.  If I spent too much time on them, the need to write the full story faded, but I needed them to fuel my imagination for those first steps into writing or plotting the first draft.

Even now, I’m only just starting to work out the balance between writing-for-the-story’s-sake and writing-that-will-actually-appear.  To take an example, I stopped dead in the middle of a recent revision and wrote out several longhand pages of backstory for a side character.  I traced his history back two generations, worked out his relationship with his mother and his grandmother, explained some of the reasons why he is the way he is, and ended with where he enters the story.  

Absolutely none of this made it into the rest of the story.  But knowing all of it made my work easier.  I wasn’t trying to match this character’s actions to some plot-ordained pattern; I knew what he would do because I knew what kind of person he was.  For me, this kind of invisible backstory helps most with characters, though I can see how it’d be useful in fleshing out a setting.  I like having an idea of how a character will react to a new situation, even if it’s something that will never, ever turn up in the novel. (Another example: I’m convinced one of my characters writes Harry Potter fanfiction.  Will this piece of information ever be relevant?  Probably not.  But it tells me something more about this particular character.)  It’s a way of preserving the mental fiction that they’re real people, and if I can convince myself for a little while, then I can have a hope of convincing the reader. 

And now I’m discovering another advantage of having all that already worked-out material to hand; I can use it again.  I’m currently in the middle of some fuzzy, first-draft work, where making a sudden left turn in the plot doesn’t require so many repairs as it would in the next revision.  So if I need to use one of these ideas that I scattered in earlier, they’re already there, rooted in previous work, ready to turn into something new as I go on.

I suppose that makes this post about undead or zombie darlings, then, except that zombies scare me.  I’ll leave the zombies for someone else.

6 Responses to “Dead darlings”

  1. 1 rachelaaron
    February 26, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    I do the same thing!!

    Often times, when I’m stuck in my writing, it’s because I don’t know something I need to know in order to move forward. So whenever I get stuck, I just sit down and start uncovering backstory for everyone involved. Most of this never works its way into a book (and shouldn’t, how many of us know or care who our co-worker’s great grandmother was), but it always helps me over the hump.

    I also did the exact same worldbuilding binge in high school. I have boxes of those white and black hard notebooks absolutely filled with descriptions.

  2. 2 Auntie Lou
    February 26, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    “Zeroth draft” — I love it!

    I have several of those sitting around.

    What tells you that you have a real first draft? And what tells you when a story is done? Or is this the subject of some future long entry?

  3. 3 Rachel Aarib
    February 26, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    For me (yay for answering questions aimed at other people!) I know the first draft is done when I get to the end of the story I set out to tell. Since I write adventure fantasy, this is pretty easy to spot. Climactic battles are pretty flashy.

    As for when the book is ACTUALLY done? Considering I have a 4 page editorial letter still waiting on The Spirit Thief, I’m going to go with “never.”

  4. 4 Rachel Aaron
    February 26, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    HAHAHA I wasn’t even logged in and THEN I spelled my own name wrong…

    So much fail.

  5. 5 Margaret
    February 26, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    (Sorry for the delay in replying — day job ugh.)

    Rachel, yes! Big spiral-bound notebooks with pages and pages of illegible writing . . . I think one of the reasons my handwriting got so bad was so that no one looking over my shoulder could tell I was writing ten pages of backstory.

    As for when the first draft is done, Auntie Lou, I think Rachel’s got it. When I’m on that first draft, I try to write consecutively — no skipping chapters, no writing “the good part in chapter 17” first — so it’s pretty clear when I’ve reached the end of the story. It may have gone through a lot of detours, it may have “XXXXX FIX THIS BIT SO IT MATCHES” in several places, it may need an awful lot of plot spackle, but it’s a complete and contained story. Short stories, I can skip ahead a few paragraphs or leave some tissue-thin “and then they went here and did this thing” sections, but I need the whole thing from start to finish before I can call it done. Once I have that, I can revise it and wrangle it into better shape.

  6. 6 mlronald
    February 27, 2009 at 1:54 am

    This is weird. I posted a comment from work and it never showed up. Funny.

    Anyway. Sorry for the slow response! Rachel, you too? I have stacks of them, all filled with illegible pencil scrawls. I think one of the reasons my handwriting is so bad is that I used it to keep anyone from having any idea what I was writing in those notebooks.

    Auntie Lou, I think Rachel has it right: the first draft is done when the whole story is there. It may be missing a few parts, but if the beginning, middle, and end are all there, the draft’s done, even if I end up changing it around and tacking on new stuff all the way through. On first drafts, I try to write consecutively — no skipping ahead to the cool bits in chapter 17 — so once I get to the end I had in mind, I usually know it’s done. Maybe that’s what the notebooks are for: so that my imagination can skip ahead as much as it likes while I get the actual writing done in the meantime.

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