I killed four people this month.
My list of casualties: Mrs. Mary Nix, the Deacon, Julia, and Catherine.
To be fair, Catherine was a nobody from the start, and I’d realized long ago that Julia and Mrs. Mary Nix were pretty worthless.
But the Deacon… The Deacon was someone special, though perhaps only to me. I have cobbled his obituary from cut-and-pasted scraps:
R.I.P The Deacon
The Deacon was a bachelor of limited income and few, if any, friends—much less lady friends—to bake him cakes. The last cake that had been made just for him was his fifth birthday cake, butterscotch, the year his parents left him on the doorstep of the old church. He had lived there ever since, moving from belfry to knave to the old parish house where he now resided. He didn’t know if he had ever had a real name, but the people of Stone called him the Deacon, and it suited him just fine.
By and by, for reasons that were never entirely clear to anyone, the Deacon became the head coach of a sports team that played in the marsh behind the church.
As head coach, he found himself privy to attentions he had never experienced from his own mother. His athletes’ mothers made him sweaters, baked him cookies, and invited him to dinners, hoping their favors would secure their children a little extra attention on the playing field. It did not. And if they expected to be hosted for dinners in return, they were disappointed. He was inept at social functions and none of the mothers wanted to be the one to instruct him, so they thanked him when he brought weeds instead of roses and turned a blind eye when he used the salad fork for dessert.
Poor the Deacon.
You may have guessed that he was, in fact, a character in the BP, though his murder is no less foul because of it. I cried as I highlighted each of his scenes in turn and struck him from the page.
The Deacon was the BP’s first character. His scenes were among the first I wrote, and he had been part of the BP for so long I never questioned what he was doing there.
Until the second draft.
I think that when writing a first draft, we shouldn’t be afraid to create lots of wonderful characters and have them follow twists and turns in plot, fall in love or kill each other.
I think that when writing a second draft, we shouldn’t be afraid to kill some of those wonderful characters and blow out the parts of the twisting, turning plot that weren’t going anywhere.
In this most recent draft of the BP, I started at the beginning of the manuscript and studied each scene to see if it moved the plot forward. If it didn’t, it had to change–or go. I took a look at each character and asked, “Does he need to be here? If I took him out, would it ruin the book?” If I could lift a character out of the story without damaging the plot, out he came!
What I discovered to my horror was that there were many scenes (especially in the first 50 pages) that didn’t go anywhere. Sure, they were generally well-written. I had even labored over some of them for days! But when I really looked at them in the context of the rest of the book, they were just funny little scenes that took up space. There were also characters, like the Deacon, who turned out to be just funny little people who cluttered up the stage. So they had to go.
Now, F and I have had many stimulating intellectual conversations about plot. He points to authors–like Pynchon–who have tons of characters who don’t contribute to the story and plot twists that don’t go anywhere. F argues that these novels are often brilliant for just that reason. Not every story has to have a tight plot, after all. I agree that this is true. There are books with wandering plots that are lovely. But I don’t want to write one of them.
I will admit that I am biased. I don’t really like books or movies that seem to wander aimlessly toward nothing just because the walk is pretty (ahem, Before Sunrise). But in the book I want to write, the characters each have their own arc that contributes in some crucial way to the larger arc of a watertight plot.
Which brings us back to murder.
If a character ends up treading water while the rest of the characters are breast-stroking–or doggy-paddling–toward the finish line with their lungs pumping and their muscles quivering, in my opinion that poor swimmer has to go.
So while I loved the Deacon and his dinner parties, I let him drown.