Last night I locked myself in my office after a very long and frazzling day of a thousand errands that had to be done right that very minute and settled in to get some writing done. And I did. I am nothing if not capable of forcing myself to do things I find unpleasant which, I must tell you, was certainly how I would describe sitting down to start the day's writing at 9pm.
I knew exactly what scene I wanted to write, and I attacked it with gusto. Yes! Gusto! It was when I found myself describing the ornamentation of the set of candlesticks atop the fireplace mantel in unusual (and wholly unnecessary) detail that I had to stop and admit something to myself that I already knew: the scene was not working. At all.
My first clue was the fact that I'd spent paragraphs upon paragraphs waxing rhapsodic about the decor. I am writing a category romance. While details of the hero's lavish wealth are always a part of the line for which I write, there are details that set the scene and help ground the emotions of the characters in the world I've made for them, and there are... rhapsodic descriptions of candles neither character would ever notice in a million years, so busy are they falling in love and failing to admit that to themselves or each other.
My second and more pertinent clue was the fact that what I was writing felt like the typing equivalent of slogging through waist-deep mud. Every. Single. Word. About. The. Freaking. Candles. HURT. I found myself online, researching the kinds of candlesticks that might be present in an eighteenth century London townhouse. Excellent information to have, were I writing a historical romance novel. As it happens, I am not.
At some point I gave up. I staggered off to bed and collapsed into it, entertaining the usual litany in my head: my career is over, I will never finish this book, I have no idea how to write books anymore, this book (number 21, more or less) is harder than all the ones that came before--all of which now seem, in my memory, to have been written in a great gleaming burst of easy and delightful creativity...
That made for restful sleep. And then I woke up this morning and faced the obvious: I'd started the scene in the wrong place. I had to throw out all my work (and my genius observations about candlesticks) and start over.
The minute I admitted that to myself, the truth about the scene itself became clear to me. I didn't need that scene at all, in fact. It was a time-waster--merely going over things that I'd either already made clear or would make clear in future. Once I accepted that, ideas for the scene I should have been writing all along began to come fast and furious. I could hardly keep up!
So this is my advice to you:
1. Pay attention to the candlesticks. Or whatever it is you find yourself writing on and on and on about, that has nothing at all to do with either the emotional growth of your characters or the forward momentum of your plot.
2. If you hate the candlesticks while you're writing way too much about them, it's probably because you should be writing something else instead. Stop, regroup, and let go. This can be hard, particularly when you're writing feverishly to a deadline and cutting out a day's writing can throw you behind schedule. But if you can cut, you should cut. And your book will be better for it, I promise. Though you may need a lot of caffeine to get you through the sleepless nights as you race to get back on track. Still worth it!
3. Sometimes you need the candlesticks to get you where you need to go. I don't believe that there is any wasted writing. Did I really need pages and pages of swooning observations about the decor? Well, no. But I needed to write those pages. I needed to head off down the wrong path for a while, so I could see the right path so clearly. Maybe I worked out the right scene in my subconscious while I was nattering on about the mantelpiece. Maybe I figured out what my characters should have been doing while they were... not doing it. But one thing I know is always true about writing books, even the bad scenes you throw away? The only way out is through. Sad but true.
4. If writing was easy, it wouldn't be fun. Or so I like to tell myself. Daily.
(Oh, and by all means, ask me anything you need to know about candlesticks. I'm now an expert!)
Megan Crane is the author of more than twenty novels, almost all of which went off the rails at one point or another. Usually more than once. She also teaches writing, as she likes to opine at length about how to write novels and then fail to take her own advice. You can find out more about her at www.megancrane.com.