Saturday, March 17, 2012

Getting Rid of Memories and Backstory

Cold Comfort went through many revisions. At one time I wanted to show something of Claire's relationship with her mother. This scene was in the first chapter and I finally took it out. I liked the little memory, but it was backstory and slowed the opening. It didn't really add anything important at that time. 
This is an example of one of the traps we fall into--loving a little scene that really has no value in the story. I argued with myself for a long time, but I knew it didn't belong.

While Claire leaned against the kitchen doorframe and waiting, the police officer moved from window to window, checking her locks. His voice filled with sympathy. “Nice lady, your mother. I was sorry to hear she died. Must be hard on you, being all alone.”
“Thank you. I miss her.” Memories came back in a rush. Claire's gaze wandered to the cookie jar, and she remembered when she’d finally taken over the Christmas baking. She’d been about fifteen, come running in from a friend’s house.
“Mom! What’s burning?” Experience sent her straight to the oven. She shoved her and into a potholder mitt and opened the door, releasing a cloud of smoke. “It’s the cookies. Again.”
Blanche looked up from the papers strewn across the kitchen table and blinked. “Oh! I was grading papers—A Christmas Carol.” A sheepish smile spread across her face. “I forgot.” She pushed her hair back and stood as Claire dumped a tray of blackened lumps into the sink. “Are any of them salvageable?”
“Afraid not.” Claire hugged her mother with a mittened hand. “Go back to work. I’ll make some more.”
Blanche had cooked and burned regularly. Claire took over in self-defense.
Now the kitchen was empty—no smoke, no essays, no Mother. Tears welled in Claire’s eyes. 

Do you have problems like this? Little scenes or vignettes you love but have doubts about? Anytime I tell myself I can use it to show the person's character, I know I'm in trouble. It should pertain to the story and what's going on with the plot. 

Claire makes cookies, but I'm not a cookie maker, so I borrowed a recipe from a great cookbook I have. 

yield: about 3 dozen

3/4 cup blanched almonds, very finely ground
3/4 cup sugar
2 large egg whites, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Line three baking sheets with parchment paper or aluminum foil; set aside. In a large bowl, combine almonds and sugar; stir to mix well. In another bowl, whisk together egg whites and almond extract until soft peaks form. Add egg whites to the almond mixture. Stir to form a soft batter. With a teaspoon, spoon batter onto baking sheets, spacing cookies apart, about 12 per sheet.
Bake in the center of the oven about 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from oven and transfer parchment paper to cooling racks until cookies begin to firm up, about 3 to 4 minutes. With a sharp knife, lift cookies from parchment and transfer to racks to cool completely.
—-Five Brothers, A Year of Tuscan Cooking


Polly said...

I think every writer knows instinctively when a scene doesn't belong. But I love that scene; it brings tears to my eyes, one part of you reasons. Then the other part, the realistic, rational self, says, yeah. but who cares? You leave it in anyway, because you love it. During every read-through or rewrite, when you come to that scene, you know you have to get rid of it. Who cares? What does it add to the story? Finally, you delete it because you know instinctively it doesn't belong.

Ellis Vidler said...

Polly, that's exactly how you react. On one level, you know it has to go, but it takes several read-throughs before you're willing to give it up.

Gail M Baugniet - Author said...

That is what I love about a first draft. I can include anything my little heart desires. Later, after reading and editing and revising to death, it becomes easier to remove what doesn't work.