It’s that time of year again. People all over the world are getting out their holiday decorations and dusting them off. Untangling miles of lights, hanging stockings, stringing bows and garland and holly all over the…well, everywhere. The holidays are upon us, people.
I didn’t participate in NaNoWriMo this year. Sad, I know. But the thing is, I couldn’t consciously devote an entire month to writing another novel when I have two other major projects ALMOST done. (I know, I’ve been saying that for a long time, but really, I’m just so, so close…) And to be honest, November is not a good month for me to take on a project of that size anyway. Not with all the holiday preparations that hit me; the shopping and baking and cooking and cleaning. And lets not forget about the decorating.
I love real Christmas trees. There’s nothing more Christmas-like than smelling the freshly cut real-live pine tree that you hauled inside and piled with lights and tinsel. Except that I haven’t actually had a real tree in years. Lots of years. For one thing, they always die. It doesn’t matter what I do, they die. And then the lights—that I spent hours wrapping meticulously around every branch, ignoring the cuts and scrapes all up and down my arms, and the tree-gum in my hair—in all their blinking glory, turn out to be blinking because you plugged in too many at once and they’re about to start your tree on fire. And the pre-strung tinsel melts all over your carpet, leaving a puddle that you swear artificial icicles could never make—so they must be real. And lets not even talk about the wildlife possibilities. We’ve all watched that Disney cartoon where Donald Duck cuts down Chip and Dale’s tree house and takes it home to decorate, right?
Anyway, I have a fake tree. And even though it doesn’t smell as awesome, there are a lot of advantages. First, it can be reused. Each year we get it out, and dust it off, fluff the branches and restring the lights that don’t work. And we always know exactly how tall it is, and how wide. Second, it comes apart piece by piece. My current tree is in five pieces, so we get them out, fluffing as we go, check the lights, clean the dust and work our way to the top, making sure each piece fits just right. And because it’s built on a strong metal pole, I know it will hold all my thousands of ornaments.
Third, unlike a real tree, this one doesn’t need water, doesn’t drop needles everywhere, doesn’t ooze gum out of broken branches, and nothing lives in this one—I guarantee it. Last, whatever I do to decorate the fake tree, however I bend the branches and restring the lights, the original structure will remain solid, sure and faithful to its mission as a tree.
This does actually have something to do with writing. If you really think hard, you will find the same qualities in a good piece of fiction writing. (I say fiction, because we’re discussing an artificial tree.) Your story will come in parts—usually an odd number—that will need to be fit together in just the right order, with certain elements of fluff and stretch. Don’t forget to clean it up—whether as you go or after you’re finished is a matter of personal preference.
If your structure is sound, your story will hold all the subplots and ornamental elements that are necessary to strengthen our bond with the characters.
With all these things, you won’t need to water your story down. Sometimes, simplicity is far more nourishing than complication. You’ll find yourself cutting out chapters and scenes that oozed with beautiful wording, but rather than adding to your story, distracts the reader into another area in which you never intended to go.
That said, don’t be afraid to experiment. Twist the plot, bend the characters, restring the sequence of scenes. And when you discover you’ve cut something important, don’t be afraid to dust it off and put it back in where you need it. As long as you remember the pole in the middle, your structure will remain solid, sure, and faithful to its mission as a story.
So get out that manuscript you set aside last year, dust it off, and look at it again. Look for the plot structure of a fake tree, by sifting through all the branches and needles to look for the pole. When you find it, pick it up, put it together, clean it up, piece by piece, and get ready for another year of submitting. Because you’ll never get a contract if you don’t submit.