September 27, 2010
The sunk cost of well-written crap
The Dear Author blog runs a weekly "First Page" anonymous writing evaluation. About four months ago they posted that they were running low on submissions so I sent in a first page. My first thought when they ran it this weekend was, Oh great, that draft is at least six months old by now
And my sister had already made most of the critiques in the comments. Namely that it's horribly overwritten. Not only the info-dumping, but I had twice as many names and proper nouns as necessary (the reader was going to benefit from all my research, whether she liked it or not).
I know what I was thinking when I wrote it: I was still irked by people who'd assumed qualities about the characters in Angel Falling Softly totally unsupported by the text. As in a three-part freshman essay, I was going to define all the facts up front and foreclose misinterpretation.
A Sisyphean task if there ever was one. But here's the most recent draft from a couple of weeks ago:
Matsu's soul tore free of its human vessel.
Whether severed from Chieko's body by Hatakeyama's sword or ripped asunder by her own despair, she was reborn in the netherworld of the damned, in an icebound Naraka. A Buddhist hell fashioned from her own karma.
In temporal terms, not two days had passed since she and Chieko first met. For a mayfly of a moment, Matsu lived the life she'd never known she wanted. And now could not imagine living without. But that brief candle was out. She was a drifting shadow, the bloody price of her wishful thinking staining every conscious thought.
The infested waters of the Sanzu River gave up her shipwrecked psyche to the permanent midnight of a windswept tundra. The bitter air stabbed at her lungs. Aching cold wracked her body. Her tears froze before striking the ground.
But the pain was a flea bite compared to the millstone of guilt strapped to her back. She had one recourse left to her—to embrace the hell within and be reborn as a vengeful ghost. Every time Hatakeyama and Ouchi cast off the mortal coil, she would await their reincarnations and hunt them down and haunt them to their miserable deaths.
In her mind she could hear Priest Gendo quoting his gods: Self-mortification is as grievous a sin as self-absolution. And Chieko quoting hers: Vengeance is mine.
But vengeance was hers and she would repay.
I rewrote it a dozen times, but it still bugged me. All tell, no show. Ultimately redundant. Finally I hit delete and fed the whole chapter (plus a thousand words beyond that) to the digital compost pile (i.e., cut and archive and maybe the bits and pieces will come in useful later).
A big problem with writing something that doesn't quite work and doesn't belong (versus stuff that is just bad) is that you end up investing so much time trying to make it work and belong that you start valuing the invested effort over the actual value, the sunk cost over the true worth.
Human nature. It's surprisingly hard letting go of the useless, and thus surprising how much things improve when you do. Anyway, I'm pretty sure "Get rid of prologues" is on one of those writing advice bullet point lists I've read somewhere. It's still a prologue even if you call it a chapter.
Oh, and to "Mai": yes, an HEA in this life (and good call on "hungry ghost"; I'd carried that term over from my source material and hadn't fixed it).