I once half-joked that I knew I was done with a book when I'd spent an entire editing pass taking out commas and then putting them right back in again. Half-joked: there are times when I've done precisely that, and ignored my own advice about whether or not that meant there was no more work to be done.
We all know the adage that art is never finished, only abandoned. But that's only because the artist, god love 'em, sees so much with their work that we never see. They feel obliged to do justice to all that comes to mind, and they have a hard time saying no to any part of the vision. Leaving out anything feels like self-betrayal.
I encountered this today while working up a revised outline for The Fall Of The Hammer. Every now and then I'd come across an element that I was prepared to axe simply because there wasn't room or time enough to do it justice. And then the paranoia would start: How do I know leaving this out isn't going to create a hole, one big enough for a million missed opportunities to get sucked into ... ?
Missed opportunities. That's the bugaboo I lose sleep over more often than nearly anything else with a creative project: the idea that I let some important or dazzling aspect of the subject I'm treating slip through my fingers like so much cold spaghetti. The counterbalance for that is, I've found, a relatively simple piece of wisdom.
Any given work, any given story, can only be about so much at once before it becomes unfocused, or baggy, or sluggish. Novels that strive consciously to encompass the whole range of human experience, or to create a panorama of a society, or something along those lines, leave me cold for this reason. It's not just that they confuse convolution with complexity, or length with depth, but that they forget such things are best evoked in the specific and the direct mode, rather than by trying to give the whole equal but cursory attention.
If a story lives and dies in the details, it isn't going to completely live or die if one of those details has to be reduced or dropped. Most of the time I find I'm agonizing over a detail with no real importance; it's mostly an element of color, and my worries about the overall colorlessness of the story are generally overblown.
Now the part where I make the title of this piece relevant. The only way to make up your mind about whether or not any such thing is worth keeping or leaving is to make a decision, one way or the other, and see firsthand how it affects the results. If you have the impulse to axe something at all, there's probably a good reason for it. But make the decision and move on, because otherwise the process of writing your story becomes one giant act of paralysis, where every single detail consideration turns into a traffic-choking tollbooth plaza.
My favorite Scorsese quote comes back to mind: "Cinema's a matter of what's in the frame and what's out of it." Learning how to drop things without regret, and to make the rest of the work feel as though nothing's missing, is a habit worth practicing.
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Other Lives Of The Mind