Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dead plants aren't always dead

When I left town last Wednesday for the Emerald City Writers’ Conference, I wrote detailed note for the pet-sitter. I covered everything from the dogs’ exercise habits to the location of the frozen blood worms for the eel.

But one thing I neglected to request is that someone – anyone – water the basil on my desk.

This is what I found when I returned on Monday:
I took one look at it and knew it was a goner. The leaves were crispy, and the stems drooped like braless D-cups.

Still, I had some water left in my Nalgene bottle from the drive, so I halfheartedly dumped it in knowing full well I’d be throwing the thing in the garbage and holding a basil funeral the next day.

But when I woke up in the morning, here’s what greeted me on my desk:
Less than 24 hours had passed, and the basil was magically resurrected. Well, it's not perfect. The leaves are still a little limp in some spots, and it could use a good pruning.

But I’m glad I didn’t toss it in the trash.

It made me think of a conversation that’s been taking place in the discussion forums for writers in Lani Diane Rich’s online revision class. Many are discovering they need to hack out entire scenes and rewrite fresh ones to make their stories stronger.

A newer author recently asked whether she should scrap the dead scenes altogether or keep them somehow. Several of us who’ve been there before suggested she save everything in an old draft while creating a new one to incorporate changes.

That’s always been my preferred method. Many times I’ve written a scene and realized later it just wasn’t right. Though the temptation is great to just hit the delete key, I never do it – not permanently anyway.

I’m a fan of creating a new version of a manuscript every time I open it to make changes. I use the date in the file name for each new version, giving myself the option of going back to those earlier versions in case I wake up one morning shrieking, “Noooo! Give me back my scene with the hubcap and the chocolate frosting!”

I’m not saying there aren’t times when those old scenes really do need to land in the trash pile and stay there. I’m just suggesting it’s smart to give yourself the option to go back and salvage or simply learn from them when you return for another look someday.

Are you trigger happy on the delete key when it comes to edits, or do you save old drafts in hopes of making them new again someday? Please share in the comments.

Either that, or come on over for dinner. I’ll be making a lovely caprese salad with my resurrected basil.

30 comments :

Jessica Lemmon said...

Thanks to your suggestion on this blog (I believe the one where your computer bit the big one), I took your advice THAT DAY and started saving old versions every time I open to revise. It makes revising a lot less stressful, knowing that what you're changing is not gone forever. Plus, I have actually gone back to previous versions to pick out a line or two or sometimes an entire section.

Mmm, caprese salad, what time should I board the plane? I'm in Ohio. ;)

Linda G. said...

My computer is haunted with the ghosts of previous drafts--I just can't hit that delete key. This has come in handy on more than a few occasions, when I've decided I really like the way I wrote it before better.

Glad your basil resurrected. :)

Hanna C. Howard said...

I'm a pack-rat, which definitely translates to my writing. I usually don't know where things are, but I save it all.

Great post, and great title. I'm so glad your basil came back to life. Unexpectedly dead plants are so sad.

But I have to ask: do you really have a pet eel?

Michelle Miller said...

I used to cut the bad stuff and paste it into a scraps file. But now I just start a new draft, a lot less work, and it keeps everything in context.

abby mumford said...

i'm a bit of a pack rat when it comes to saving things. fortunately, no one can see exactly how many versions of rough drafts i've saved. victory shall be mine!

and congrats to the basil plant. welcome back.

Kerry Schafer said...

Every project has its own "Darlings File" for scenes and paragraphs and characters I've loved but must cut loose. Sometime I go back and transplant a paragraph, or remind myself of an idea or voicing I liked.

Piedmont Writer said...

I save everything! And I have gone back and used some things for other projects. What's not right for Penny could be perfect for Violet.

Sierra said...

I save almost everything. I went through a stack of old (and supremely crappy) poetry from high school recently, and had to tell myself to get rid of it. Before I did so, though, I went through and copied down the one or two good lines from each piece. Those lines went into a notebook. I was actually able to get rid of the old stuff after that, because I felt like I was hanging on to what was important.

Granted, I'd had those pieces of paper for over a decade now. It took me that long to be able to even contemplate trashing them, so I'm not the best example. ;)

warriorwriters said...

Excellent analogy. I cut and paste into documents and save EVERYTHING. It's too easy to delete out of emotion.

Thanks for this post.

Kristen Lamb

lora96 said...

I'm a slash and burn deleter, myself.

I just started my ailing WiP over from the beginning with a first person point of view. I actually came VERY close to deleting the original and edited files so I could "start fresh" but I let them hang around just in case I need to look up something. Like the plot.

Patty Blount said...

After a crisis of faith earlier this summer where I nearly destroyed SEND in a fit of insecurity, I now delete nothing. When I prune WIPs, I move deleted scenes to an Outtakes file.

We sweat and bleed over these words so instead of murdering the darlings, I just imprison them for a while. If they behave themselves, who knows? Parole may be in their future.

Good luck on the new job.

Shakespeare said...

I am not a pack rat at all... but I save all of my writing. I never know when my pathetic short stories from college will come in handy later on, even as an example of horrid writing in my own novels (I can't exactly use somebody else's crappy writing!)...

I am revising heavily right now, and I have two drafts, the old one and the new one. I pull a chapter off the old draft, enter it into the new one, shred it to pieces, and then pull in the next chapter. So far it's working well...

Great advice... and my plants usually recover from my extreme tactics, too. Overwatering is the only thing that really kills them. (Perhaps that could be a future post?)

Adriana said...

um, dead you sneak on my porch and take a picture of one of MY basil plants (the withered underwireless-bra-cup one)?! because that's exactly what my basil looks like! good thing it's raining today, it might recover :)

and thanks for the good advice on saving drafts!

Squishy said...

I use an awesome (and free!) program called yWriter which allows you to make a scene 'used' or 'unused' in each chapter. That way you can easily save old drafts and compare scenes or copy/paste lines you love from one to the other. Not having a whole separate document to scroll through makes it super it easy to find stuff.

Well, if you're providing the caprese salad, I'll bring the linguine and pasta sauce. :-) And the red wine of course...

Matthew AT Banning said...

Well, I tend to be a bit of a pack rat too.

I have 4 different versions of my first book! Unfortunately, I didn't keep the 2nd and I wish I had then, but, I have the 1st, 3rd and 4th. I saved the (138,000 word) 4th version on a disc and am currently doing a word deduction as a fifth revision. I'm currently at 133,000 words after 12 chapters if I'm not mistaken ...

Mary Brebner said...

I keep a DEAD DARLINGS file with all my clippings that would otherwise end up on the floor (metaphorically speaking, of course).

One person's junk is another's treasure or, in this case, one stories crap is another's witty gem!

Dominique said...

Such good advice. My first WIP, I didn't save any of my old drafts, so I only have the final draft. In hindsight, not my best decision. For everything I've done since, I have the various drafts saved separately. You know, in case I want to resurrect any place or, well, anyone.

Susan Spann said...

I'm in the "save everything" boat. When I wrote my first manuscript, I deleted changes outright - and then found myself wishing I had a couple of scenes back.

Now I save each draft in numbered order (the writing partner I'm starting a new project with prefers dates, so I'll soon be using both, and we'll see how that works out for me). You're very right - sometimes a scene, or even just a comment, can go back in and it's so nice to have it available.

dirtywhitecandy said...

I keep a file called 'outtakes', and everything that is cut goes in there. I've often found it useful to go back over a version that didn't quite work, or, when I'm further along the edits, to pluck out a line or two I decide I needed after all.

I've resurrected crispy basil too.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I'm pretty obsessive when it comes to saving old scenes that I cut. It just makes it so much easier to delete them. And it's a good thing, because a lot of the time I take phrases or paragraphs from scenes I've previously deleted.

Delia said...

I'm a saver, too. And a backer-upper, which has pulled my ass out of the fire in the past.

What time did you say you were doing that caprese?

kd easley said...

I'm pretty trigger happy with the delete key. If it doesn't work I usually trash it. If I do save it I put it in a file called stuff I might use for XXXX and seldom ever open it again.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Wow, that was quite the comeback by your plant.

I agree with you. Save your old stuff because you never know when you can resurrect it and make something just as pretty as it was before.

WhisperingWriter said...

I'm impressed with the basil.

And yes, I do save old drafts. Just in case. Usually I never look back but one never knows.

Shalet Jimmy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shalet Jimmy said...

Though I didn't write much, I also used to save and reused it on many occassions.

But it is the Bassil plant episode that excited me.

Claire Dawn said...

I also save several versions. But I'm nowhere near as organised about which is which. I've often had to open 3 or 4 files in an effort to find the one I actually want.

Simon C. Larter said...

I save different versions too. Iz handy. Also, I <3 caprese salad. Please serve a nice wine with it. I'll be there in... *checks Google maps* ...47 hours. Also, I'll need coffee.

Tawna Fenske said...

I love hearing everyone's ideas for backups and saving old scenes! You'll be happy to know I did in fact make the caprese salad the other night, and it was very tasty!

Tawna

LadyGenette said...

I'm a print-a-holic. I have printed out every new version since day one, which means I still have a printout (somewhere) that makes my main character sound like Harry Potter with boobs.

That being said, my method of revision is simple. I print out the novel, go back into the old file, delete EVERYTHING, and hit save. That forces me to go through every single scene of the novel as I'm rewriting it. I can't skim lines or zone out and push past pages. I can't copy and paste things with errors. It works for me.

If I want to go back to the scene where all of my characters are dancing cult-like around a barbecue, I'll just have to dig it out of one of my printouts. If the scene is really worth it, I won't mind. If I start longing for a real-life CTRL-F function, I probably don't need that scene.