Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Kill Pile

Scrap. Scratch. Leftovers. Tidbits. The Drawer. All writers have a name for the file where they stash the beloved but ill-suited lines, scenes, and even entire chapters they have cut from a story. For my novel-in-progress, I named this file The Kill Pile.

Most of the time, I quite enjoy deleting unnecessary or out-of-place text from my work. It’s like cleaning out your closet and then admiring all of your favorite clothes without the distraction of that shirt with the oil stain or the adorable pants that no longer fit. But then there are the pieces that are hard to let go of, even if they border on unwearable. For instance, I have a pale pink sweater that looks great with my skin and has these cool little flower appliqués that are feminine without being girly. However, my sweater also has a decent-sized hole just below my right boob. Months after discovering this, I continue to wear the sweater and pretend to be surprised each time someone points out the hole. I just can’t seem to get rid of it, even though I know I should.

Deleting a great line or scene from my novel is 100 times more painful than giving up my sweater. But no matter how much I may love a particular turn of phrase or exchange between characters, if it detracts from the story, it’s gotta go.

edit

From Echohub.com

 

While I rarely revisit my Kill Pile, I find comfort in knowing that it’s there. And as I inch closer to the completion of the third draft of my novel, I thought I’d take a moment to honor just a few of the many lines that otherwise may never see the light of day. Perhaps it’s also time for me to stash that sweater in the back of my closet; out of sight but still there if ever I should want it.

 

* * *

I am sitting on a cushioned wood chair in a warm kitchen. My feet don’t touch the floor, but it doesn’t matter because I’m eating an oatmeal cookie. I love oatmeal cookies. The old woman is at the stove, humming what sounds like cartoon melodies. Bugs Bunny songs.

If I close my eyes, I can see her lemon-colored sweater, the beaded chain on her glasses, the few remaining streaks of deep brown hair on an otherwise white head. She smells like wax paper and roses, and her fingers are short and stout, the backs of her hands perfectly white except for a sprinkling of light brown spots, like freckles that have been smudged.

She pats me on the head, like my Nana does sometimes. She drinks tea out of China cups patterned with blue flowers while I play with the marshmallows in my hot chocolate. She calls me Sweetie. Would you like some toast, Sweetie?

* * *

“My aunt got in a car accident on her way to the airport one time,” Alisha said. “Just a fender bender but they had to pull over and exchange insurance and everything, so she missed her flight. She was all pissed off, because she was on her way to some important work thing. BUT as it turned out, the airplane that she was supposed to be on caught fire mid-air and went down over the ocean somewhere and everyone who didn’t die on impact ended up drowning or being eaten by sharks.”

“What a crock of shit,” Sara grumbled. “I saw that in a movie once or twice or a hundred times. And pass me the fucking joint if you’re just going to sit there.”

“Can you actually crash into water?” Marisol pondered, picking at a small hole in the knees of her jeans. “I mean, you can crash into dirt or cement or a mountain, because they’re solid. But water isn’t solid. So wouldn’t you just sort of sink into water?”

“At a fast enough speed, the water is as hard as cement,” Alisha said. “And depending on what angle you’re coming from. Like if you dive into a swimming pool headfirst rather than doing a belly flop.”

Sara shook her head. “I still say its bullshit regardless of the angle of the plane.”

“Anyway I thought planes were designed to float now,” Marisol said. “In the event of a water landing. The plane is supposed to float long enough for everyone to get out onto the boats.”

“It depends on how fast it hits the water–” Alisha started.

Sara groaned. “Can we kill the physics lesson for now? You know there’s a reason why I’m an art history major.”

“Because you like to get high and play with finger paints?” Marisol joked. Sara made a face but didn’t argue the point.

* * *

When I got home that evening, a little drunk and burping up wasabi, I found that my home had been exorcised. All of his jeans, t-shirts and underwear were missing from the shelves. His five million wrinkle-proof shirts had disappeared as well, as had his razor, toothbrush, comb, and shaving cream. Everywhere I looked, there were gaps left behind like missing teeth.

* * *

In a family full of teachers, Patrick had chosen to go to architecture school. “I’m kind of like the off-white sheep of the family,” he explained.

* * *

How to Stay Awake During Long Solo Drive to Los Angeles:

  • Three double cappuccinos by noon
  • Open up all of the windows when passing through Coalinga*
  • Whatever you do, do not listen to pubic radio

*slaughterhouse capital of the West

 

 

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Understanding the A**hole

To paraphrase my high school drama teacher: “Nobody thinks they’re an a**hole.”

We were in rehearsal for the spring play, in which I was playing the part of the villain. Ms. Quinn was a standard issue Bitter Betty: middle-aged, single, sour and dour, and went out of her way to squash other people’s joy. As far as I was concerned, she was plain old mean for the sake of being mean.

asshole hatI was not exactly thrilled to have been cast in this role, a fact which must have been clear to my drama teacher because he took me aside and told me that in his many years in the theater, he’d loved playing villains most of all. The trick, he explained, was to get to the heart of a character, to understand his or her motivations, to view the world from behind his or her eyes. “Nobody thinks they’re an a**hole,” he said. “Ms. Quinn feels completely justified in her behavior. And it’s your job to figure out why.”

His words stuck with me. Long after I’d decided that terrible heartbreak and betrayal in Ms. Quinn’s youth had turned her into a serious killjoy, I was eager to tip my psychoanalyst hat at friends and enemies alike. Why did that bitch Stacey pick fights with girls who were smaller than her? Perhaps she was bullied at home. Why did Joanna sleep around with so many loser guys? Clearly she wasn’t getting enough attention at home, and also her parents provided a terrible model for relationships. I was drunk with understanding for these people’s bad behavior! But it didn’t take long for me to realize that just because I understood (or thought I understood) their behavior, I still didn’t like it.

Two weeks ago at my last writers’ group meeting, one of the members made this comment on the chapter I had submitted: “I feel sorry for Alice and I’m glad she identified her problem, but I’m still not crazy about her. She’s fundamentally selfish and I don’t really expect her to change. At the same time, I don’t think I need to like Alice. She’s interesting, which is at least as important.”

I’ve never been so pleased to hear that someone dislikes one of my characters! While Alice is not a villain, she is a certainly a complicated person with a lot of character flaws. There are of course many legitimate reasons for these flaws, which is part of the reason why I love her so much*. But, as evidenced by that feedback, like her or not, Alice is interesting and genuine enough to evoke an emotional reaction. And isn’t that what we strive for in our writing? To create characters – a**hole or not – that are compelling and believable?

To this day, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why people behave they way they do. Unfortunately, this includes a few real life a**holes, and one in particular who will remain unnamed. And I still don’t like them (him), even if I understand that his passive aggressive behavior and accusatory tone is rooted in profound insecurity. (Clears throat).

Perhaps the a**hole in question will turn up in one of my novels some day. In the meantime, I will strive to keep the a**holes in my life on the page.

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*Also, I love her because I created her. So there’s that.

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