Monday, May 4, 2009

Writing (and Deleting) the Memory Dump in Fiction

The setting for my first mystery, The Prairie Grass Murders, was central Illinois. A man's body was discovered in a field on a farm that strongly resembled the farm on which my younger brother and I grew up. The protagonists of the Sylvia and Willie mysteries are brother and sister (although Sylvia is the youngest in this family and the pair is in their early sixties).

What an opportunity, I thought, to use my memories to help create my story's setting. There are things I could never forget: the oily smell of the wood workbench in the toolshed, the reek of ammonia in the chicken house, the vicious white rooster that guarded the barnyard, the sweet scent of our lilac bush, or biting into a warm tomato fresh from the garden.

In the first writing, two of the chapters were memory dumps, reading more like memoir than mystery. The descriptions were lovely (if I do say so myself). The incidents charming, even amusing. But there were two problems. (1) The memories had nothing to do with the story, and (2) these stories were plunked into the middle of tension-building scenes, thereby destroying the pacing.

You know what that meant. I needed to scratch them out. Select and delete. Make them go away. It was hard, but it was necessary. The goal of self-editing is to make our manuscripts crisp and clean and ready for a full read by an agent or editor. The delete key is our friend.

14 comments:

The Practical Preserver said...

Rob parnell (The Easy way to Write guru) says: "Murder your darlings." It's so hard, but true and necessary. Nice post.

Gayle Carline said...

I don't murder my darlings, but I do put them in storage. I have a folder on my computer for all of the passages I loved and had to part with. Sometimes I can dig a phrase out here and there to drop into a story without breaking the flow.

Gayle
http://gaylecarline.blogspot.com

K. A. Laity said...

You are so right! Who was it who wrote, you must kill all your darlings? [quick Google] Ah, Faulkner! Yes, it's the most difficult thing, but it is so necessary, which is often why it's good to let an MS sit for a bit before you go back to it.

Galen said...

I, too, must agree. Tight and tidy writing is a virtue. The best advice I got on the subject was two fold: Revise, Revise, Revise. And: "Don't fall in love with your writing." That is, don't be afraid to cut out even the parts you like best.
Galen.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

It always kills me to cut my favorite bits, but otherwise we'd all end up with rambling, long-winded novels. I love your vivid descriptions and hope you can find another project to use them.
Elizabeth
http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com/

Karen Walker said...

I love this. It's true for memoir as well. My first draft was a 700-page self-help tome. Deciding which parts of my life should be included and which left out took months and months. It took a long time to learn to detach from my own writing and be able to delete, delete, delete. Great advice, Patricia. Thanks.

karen walker
http://www.karenfollowingthewhispers.blogspot.com

Karen Walker said...

Hey Patricia,
Do you know you still have word verification before someone can publish a post?

Anonymous said...

Karen, Thanks for the heads-up. I thought I'd turned it off. Back to the drawing board...Pat

Anonymous said...

Testing the word verification thingie again.

N A Sharpe said...

Great post - I love your vivid descriptions and can see why having to edit them out is hard. Sigh. But we must keep the writing tight and advance the story.

NA Sharpe
http://nancysharpe.blogspot.com

Julie Lomoe said...

I love the term "memory dumping" - I never encountered it before. But it's a tricky concept - much of my fiction can be said to be memory dumping, since I draw extensively on personal experience. But as you say, moving the story forward is the key. What about Proust, though? Memory dumping is his specialty.

Jina Bacarr said...

This post should be required reading for every writer. Excellent.

Jina

http://tinyurl.com/BerlinSexDiary

drmani said...

Dwight Swain says there's a bit of YOU in every book you write. Thanks for pointing out how important it is to make sure that bit fits!

All success
Dr.Mani
Author: "Think, Write & RETIRE!"
http://ThinkWriteRetire.com

Marvin D. Wilson said...

Good post, and true dat. :)

Marvin D Wilson
http://inspiritandtruths.blogspot.com/
http://tiedyedtirades.blogspot.com/