Get Yourself Out of the Way

I’m in the thick of revisions/editing. I approach editing a little differently than drafting. While drafting, I jump around all over the place when the ideas hit me for the various scenes. With editing, I tend to be much more linear.

Usually, however, I am not so linearly-structured to get bogged down in any one section to move on and know that I can (and probably will) come back to an earlier section.

And yet… I recently spent a week on a single chapter. Not just any chapter, but THE chapter – Chapter 1. Start from scratch. Go back to the original and start from paragraph 1. Wait, maybe paragraph 2. Cut, add, re-arrange, re-word. Bang head against the wall. Crumple computer into a ball and toss it into the trash. Start all over again. (I don’t suppose anyone is familiar with this process? hahaha)

I was about to start yet another fresh document when I realized the problem. Two lines. I had two lines that were road blocking me and because of them, obviously I couldn’t move forward, but they were also causing the traffic jam behind it. It was causing me to believe the whole chapter was in disarray and when I looked at those two lines I thought:

What is so great about those lines?

Who are they for? My character? Or me?

You can probably guess the answer at this point. I mean, I’m no surprise-ending writer here in the blogosphere, you know?

I liked the message behind the lines, but as soon as I realized they didn’t reflect my protagonist, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Do you ever get in the way of your story? Of your characters’ lives and actions?

There’s editing for precise word choice, or vibrant and active verbs, for getting rid of passivity and all the forms of “to be” – but then there’s also continuity and authenticity.

Authenticity is the accurate and reliability of our plots, characterizations, and behavior actions, which encompasses a great deal, but I kind of like the “existentialist philosophy” definition that my little widget dictionary gives for it: “relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive (maybe not that part, because really, WHO uses the word “purposive”? Existential philosophers, I guess.), and responsible mode of life.”

Yeah, that’s kind of a mouthful and maybe a bit pretentious, but I like the “emotionally appropriate, significant” part best because that is the part of writing where we can find ourselves getting in the way. We cannot help but include some of our beliefs and morals into our stories somehow, but sometimes we infuse too much of our ideology into the narration to pull readers outside of the story because it isn’t emotionally appropriate or significant for the character or even more simply, for the scene.

But how do I identify such instances?

Let me give an example. Here is part of one of the lines I mentioned earlier that I axed:

I think a death can highlight your true feelings for someone – or at least reveal them…

I don’t know if my protagonist wouldn’t think or believe this, but I had it as part of her narration in the very first chapter and it was too self-aware for the scene in question and also too explicit. It was not emotionally appropriate for my character at that point in time. It’s a pertinent observation, but one that I felt like I was superimposing rather than allow for reader interpretation.

Here is another example from a different manuscript:

She knew Luisa was not her mother. Nor were Mafuane or Graciela. She knew this. And yet she could not seem to prevent her heart from going on lockdown, much like the security lockdowns in her schools; nothing went in and nothing went out. When trying to keep students safe, you didn’t worry about what parents would think of you or what they would say later. In the end, no one cares about feelings as long as her child is safe.

My character is creating a direct, didactic comparison. Does it work? Is it emotionally appropriate and significant? Since my protagonist is an educator – a high school principal no less – I think it passes the test. There are other instances in that story where I’ve had her too explicit in her conversations where she is spilling out educational jargon, especially in relation to school security. She combines my own philosophy of school security/safety and my background as an educator, but she is not me. It might have been intellectually appropriate, but not emotionally significant and therefore a signal that I need to get myself out of the way. In the passage above, it is natural for her to make the comparison and significant that she does so in that situation.

Sometimes, discovering that I need to chop something out that resonates with the theme or plot feels a bit like losing something important, but more often it goes hand in hand with why I love editing so much. With each deeper edit like this, my prose grows stronger.

Do you find yourself “getting in the way” with your narration and characters? How do you identify this issue in your own writing? Can you tell when an author has lost him/herself in the narrative and therefore pulled you out of it because of this interference?

Paul Simon has some ways to tell ourselves to leave our manuscript. Slip out the back, Jack…

2 thoughts on “Get Yourself Out of the Way

  1. I’m not a writer, but I find I do this as an educator a lot. I’ll be teaching something, and then go on a slight tangent to illuminate some awesome thing. Much later it’ll hit me that I did it to satisfy myself, because of my curiosity or my larger view of the whole, or whatever. The students tend not to benefit. They either don’t care, or, more likely, aren’t mathematically ready for that other tangential idea. This year I realized that I didn’t have time to show how earthquakes travel through the crust of the earth because it would have meant showing them 10 lines or so of pretty complex math. In hindsight I’m glad I didn’t do it, even though I think it’s really cool. Instead we used the foundation to show that light bends at an interface, which is a much more common feature of waves. I’m sure there might have been a student or two who could have followed the math at the breakneck speed I would have had to do it, but that wouldn’t have been worth it if I lost everyone else. And I think I know this is true because in years past when the test has been approaching my response to “will that be on the test” was always “of course not, that’s way to complicated.”


    1. Ha! I probably did this way more when I was teaching than when I write. Of course in my case, it was probably more detrimental in that I might have been far more interested in what I was teaching than what my middle schoolers were “learning”.
      “Way too complicated” seems a good quick-test for that decision.


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