It’s Not Easy Deleting

Yesterday I started off my writing day by deleting all but nine of the words I’d written the day before.

Now, this isn’t as bad as it sounds, since I’d only written 339 words the day before. Each one extracted like a bad tooth and laboriously typed. Over something like two hours. It just was not working.

There are two schools of thought on what this kind of wall means: either you’ve taken a wrong turn and the work is telling you by resisting or that you’re up against something really important and you have to punch through to the other side.

There lies the conundrum.

How do you know how long to keep chipping at the wall, looking for that little glimpse of Shangri-La on the other side? At some point you’re no longer making progress, you’re just banging your head against a brick wall and the only thing chipping is your skull.

Eventually I gave up at my pitiful 339 words. After all, I do have a day job. I looked at it the next morning and couldn’t bear to try to make that scene work any more. Made my head hurt just to look at it. So I deleted everything up to the previous scene. Kalayna Price, who’s a supportive friend, as well as a terrific writer, said she hoped that the nine words I saved were at least really good ones. (I, of course, had to tweet my ignominious beginning.) It’s a nice thought, but I don’t know — they must have been incidental edits to the previous scene.

This is a bit of a cheat, to delete before I officially start for the day. I figure my wordcount on a daily and weekly basis. (Have I ever mentioned I love spreadsheets?) At the start of my writing day, I put in the current wordcount of my manuscript. Then, as I write, I can watch the wordcount go up until I reach my target. This is why drafting can be more rewarding than editing — I hate negative wordcounts. So I deleted before I began, so I wouldn’t have to overcome the negative 330 to make my daily goal. It’ll show up in the weekly goal, but there it is.

Marin, who has a knitting blog that’s actually about knitting today, because she made this super-cool alligator sweater, responded that knitters call what I’d done “frogging.” Why? Because you rip-it, rip-it, rip-it.

Those knitters are a wild and crazy crowd, I tell you.

But I love this analogy, the physicality of it. I don’t knit, but I do quilt. I know that moment when you look at the thing in your hands and you realize that it’s gone wrong. You made a mistake a ways back and the only way to get to it is to rip out everything from that point forward. At least in writing, thanks to the blessings of word processing, you can cut the scene and stick it in a little folder, just in case.

(And, every once in a while, you get to raid the outtakes and pop them back into the document, which makes the wordcount zoom up in a tremendously gratifying way. Okay – it’s not an exciting lifestyle.)

When a thing is physical, when you can look at the rows of loops and stitches, you can see where the error is. With a novel that arguably exists only in your head, it’s harder to discern where the mistake lies. Or even that it really is a mistake.

At some point, you just have to go with your gut.

And hit the frogging with as much grace as you can muster.

6 Replies to “It’s Not Easy Deleting”

  1. Graceful frogging! Sounds like a dance.

    Since you confessed your loathing of dentistry, I understand how painful the convulsions on the "backspace" key must have been.

    Here's to growing the word-count with such creativity you can't help but gasp, "I am a GENIUS!"

  2. I love you, Jeffe Kennedy.

    Not only did you pimp my blog, feature Kermit and hit the knitting terminology, I started thinking about the relationship between different arts, the concrete and the abstract and the joys of word processors.

    I've read somewhere that someone (if I were younger, I could remember who or where) does all his writing longhand because he feels word processing leaves too much room to edit and he isn't as precise or careful to begin with.

    Maybe a good exercise (for future reference) would be to write part of what you're stuck on out on a legal pad and see if a change of medium gives you a fresh new perspective.

  3. I'm pretty sure the rules of frogging dictate that you curse like a sailor the whole time you're doing it. Or maybe that's just the knitters I've known. In any case, there's only so much room for "grace" there.

  4. You must be prescient, KAK – I was wondering today if it was really arrogant that I thought something I wrote was pure genius. Maybe that's just a bit of karmic reward for my frogging courage.

    Ah, Marin — that's my favorite kind of comment to get! And not just the love part. That's a really interesting idea, to make the writing physical to overcome a sticking point. I might just try that!

    And Kev, I think you just blew Marin's theory that you always find the best side of anything!

  5. A lovely blog, Jeffe, and as someone who's been stuck at the do over or chip away stage more often than I care to remember, I know how tough the decision can be.

    I do two things to help me decide: One, I go somewhere else, i.e. a coffee shop, write on a blank sheet of paper: "what does this scene need to convey?" and then write it from the first-person POV. That helps me figure out if I'm in the right spot or not to break through."

    If that fails, I drink. LOL! Only kidding. But I do feel like drinking as I delete, delete, delete.

  6. See, that's really interesting, Keena, that your solution is to change the physicality: either by location or by modality.

    I'm totally with you on the drinking. BTW, when are we getting together again? You're coming to sit on my patio, right?

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