Use it or Lose it

So in my work, I have a really bad habit that was pointed out to me when I had Eastlight edited by Carol Gaskin: I like to toss every little idea that pops into my head right down onto the page. Most of these are good ideas, but they often change the direction of the story at a time when it doesn’t warrant changing. They insert a detail that catches the reader’s attention, but then I never bring it back or wrap it up and the reader is left wondering what happened to that magical amulet in chapter fifteen?

Use Its, as I’m calling them, are details I considered important enough to describe at the time, but never come back. They’re little floating threads that never get snipped out of the tapestry or woven back in. The fix is pretty simple of course: lose them. Unless the thread is going to come back (in this book or another in the series), cut them out. Loose ends frustrate readers. I know I’ve personally put down many a book and found myself trying to remember if things got dealt with. Avoid Use Its by marking them when you write them in either the novel (I use programming syntax /** since it’s easy to search on in Word) or keep them in a separate file. Just make sure that the threads get used later, get snipped out, or you don’t leave your comment markers.

Stephen King mentioned in On Writing that no character considers themselves secondary. In our minds, we’re the center of the universe. So it is with characters. “Use It or Lose It” also applies to characters. Too many people vying for the spotlight can slow the story or take your work off into a tangent. This is a major problem for me: I want to show you everyone in a city, a village, a world. But no character should be given the spotlight unless they’ve got a crucial role, and it’s cheating to try and shoehorn them in by upping their role in the plot.

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