I may have to cut out about 1,700 words from the story I’m working on for the Scholastic Asian Book Awards.
Actually, I already know that I will have to cut it out. It will be the most painful thing I’ve done, but it will be necessary for the story to progress.
All sorts of writers have all sorts of clever analogies, illustrations, and metaphors for the process of writing. Just yesterday, I heard of the process of writing being like the building of a house: the first thing you need is a killer concept, but after that, it’s hard work and perseverance until you get to see the finished product. Stephen King’s personal take on writing is that it’s like making salami – he just hacks away at it and something comes out in the end. But he tries to make good salami.
So I’m here to add another citizen to the already-overpopulated land of writing analogies.
You see, writing is like the organic growth of a body. It starts off with one cell – one idea – and that one carries the potential for a fully formed, fully functional being that is capable of working wonders. It always starts with one. As the cell, or the idea, grows from one to two, two to four, four to eight (and you can do the rest of the exponentiation on your own), sometimes something creeps in. Something that looks like a cell, but doesn’t do what a cell does. Something that looks like an idea to break forth into more ideas, but in the end causes grievous harm to your writing.
I call these little demons cancerous ideas.
They look good at first. Somewhere along the writing of Act 2, as you’re in the zone, creating content after content, suddenly something shows up that doesn’t quite look like the rest. An extra idea pops up that didn’t exist in the outline. But at this point, you’re pretty tired of tasting only one flavor of writing, and this interesting difference is a welcome change of pace, and so you pursue it. I mean, you’ve made it this far and you’re doing great – how bad can it be, right?
Very, very bad.
Because the moment you begin feeding the cancerous idea, it grows and multiplies like the other healthy ideas, and it grows into cancerous writing. Then into a cancerous plot. When you realize how badly it’s harming your story, it’s already too late – it has eaten into the main storyline, fusing into it like some ugly, festering parasite on the trunk of a growing tree, killing it slowly from the inside. But what is there to do? You have come this far, you may as well finish it, cancerous or not.
But you will come to realize that all these cancerous writing do not beget good ideas, or good writing of any sort. Your story, which had started off so beautifully and had made it into its adolescent phase full of energy, is now this mutated disease-ridden thing that looks like something that had walked right out of Chernobyl, dripping radioactive goo where it steps and poisoning the air itself with every chill-inducing groan.
The only thing you can do is to shoot it in the head, bury it, and pray for no one ever has the misfortune of ever seeing its ugly face again.
Which is precisely why it is so important to recognize cancerous ideas, or cancerous writing early on in the writing process, especially if you’re going for a long-runner (starting from novella length). I should have seen this coming a week ago, but I hadn’t – and it’s time for surgery, however painful, before it gets any worse.
Be careful when you begin your descent down the rabbit hole. You may not be able to find your way out.