Monday, April 4, 2011

Why a Book is Like a Suitcase

Well, they're both rectangular prisms, I suppose, but it goes deeper than that. I've been packing today for my trip to Los Angeles, and in the course of my folding and rolling and stuffing I realized my books — or at least my first drafts — are like suitcases, really.

Some of the things I'll put in, I won't need. And some of the things that I'll need, I'll forget to put in.

In all my years of travelling (and writing) I have never yet perfected this. I've tried, believe me. I've refined my packing technique so I can usually fit what I need in one carry-on, but even then there will always be one shirt or one pair of pants that I could have left home, just as in every first draft I've written there's always been one scene (at least) simply taking up space.

Which is nothing, of course, when compared to the bother of getting to the end of the first draft and realizing I need to add a whole new scene or subplot (the equivalent of having left my hairdryer at home, instead of packing it).

In my latest book, The Rose Garden, I wrote a lovely scene in which my heroine and one of the past characters sat talking on a hillside on a quiet Sunday morning, and another scene in which she met two ramblers on the coast path. Good scenes, both of them, but totally unnecessary to the plot, and so although I packed them into that first suitcase they were never used.

On the other hand, I found I had forgotten to put something in the middle of the story that was necessary, so I had to add it in.

It seems no matter how I try to learn from past experience, this always happens. Even though I've laid my clothes out carefully and taken half away, the way I've learned to do, I know there will be something that will languish in the suitcase all this week and not get worn. And in my current work-in-progress I know I'm creating scenes that won't be in the final draft.

Maybe one day I'll be able to spot them straight off, and save time. Anybody out there have some tips to offer?

(Come back Thursday, when the lovely Julie will be posting.)


  1. I love this comparison! I just finished second-pass revisions on my current WIP and found myself adjusting what I'd packed in several places. In addition to adding or removing scenes, there are also some scenes where you chose the wrong item - you knew you needed a dress so you packed the fancy red one, only to find that the casual green one would've served you better.

    I find I do more addition than subtraction (despite Stephen King's assertion that second drafts should be 10% shorter than first drafts, mine always seem to be 5% longer), and I'm not sure if that's because I try to be conscious as I'm writing the first draft about whether a scene needs to be written out in full or simply summarized (or skipped over altogether), or if it's because I haven't yet learned when packing to recognize what's vital and what could be left behind in the interest of making the baggage lighter.

    I wonder if writers who outline the entire story in advance face these problems?

    I'm looking forward to the release of your new book, by the way! I'm disappointed I won't be able to make it out to Whitby for the launch, but I hope it's a success!

  2. I do it too. I have no tips to avoid it. I see it as a vital part of the discovery draft, and I quite enjoy it, more than I actually enjoy leaving my hairdryer at home in real life.

  3. That is such a great analogy! Packing too much, not taking the right things, always leaving something behind that you need...

    I'm not sure I have any tips. I tend to have one wardrobe, winter or summer, and it's not very extensive, so whatever trip I go on, I haven't got much choice in what I decide to take or leave at home. I just roll it all up and pack it in my rucksack. Which is not an analogy that translates too happily to my writing... I hope I don't write the same thing over and over! Erm, I'm just off out to buy my first suitcase. I think it's time to upgrade.

  4. Have never thought of it that way, Susanna, that's brilliant! Don't have any tips for changing it though, I think that's just the way it has to be.

    Enjoy LA! Wish I was going too!

  5. Exactly what Lori's so true.