The Deletion Graveyard

RamonaGravitarI had to get rid of a character this week. His name was Mark Rowonowski, and he was a detective with the Delaware State Police.

Rowonowski was bald–shaved head kind of bald–and he had a scar on the bridge of his nose that ran down toward his left eye. The scar had not come from police work, and he never discussed how he got it. People asked, but he made it clear he wasn’t going to talk about it.

Rowonowski was barrel-chested and tall, and he wore neat but nondescript suits. He had a habit of squinting slightly when he spoke to someone, as if he was carefully considering every word the person said, or maybe questioning it. He wasn’t. The squinting was a habit he didn’t know how to break.

Rowonowski was good at his job, but he was impatient. He didn’t think he was impatient, but his mother, his sisters, his partner, even his dog, seemed to, and Rowonowski was self-aware enough to know if that many people agreed on something, it was probably true.

And he hated his cell phone. HATED IT. He’d been around long enough to have used a clip radio. He missed being able to turn off the radio and stick it in a drawer. But his cell…he had to have the damn thing nearby 24/7. About once a week, he fantasized about boarding the Cape May Ferry and, halfway into the 17-mile trip, throwing his cell phone into the Delaware Bay. Some weeks, his fantasy including setting the phone on fire first.

In his personal life, he had a partner, Eric. Eric was a businessman of some kind. They’d met in college, and then Eric married a woman, and after that didn’t work out, he and Rowonowski reacquainted through mutual friends. And so on. They’d been together 8 years. They talked about getting married, but Rowonowski had hesitations. Not about Eric, but about the old school guys at work. And the fuss of a wedding. Rowonowski didn’t like fusses, and luckily neither did Eric, and so they figured they’d get a license and have a small ceremony in the back yard with friends. No set date, but soon.

Eric didn’t appear in the story because Rowonowski’s personal life wasn’t part of his role in the plot. Rowonowski’s role was to interview the protagonist–a teacher– about an incident at school. His weird squinting thing was off-putting, and the scar on his nose distracted her, but his questions made her worry about one of her students. After the interview, she confronted the student, which made him do something stupid, which drove the plot to the next scene. Rowonowski’s mission in the story was accomplished.

Later, because the setting is a small Delaware town, the protagonist ran into Rowonowski, and he’d heard about something good that happened to her, and he congratulated her. He was like that. An efficient guy with a few quirks and a nice side. Like a real person.

Rowonowski had two relatively short scenes in my story, but I gave him plenty of background, in part because that’s what writers do. They know much more about a character than ever appears on the page. The second reason I gave him so much backstory is that I liked him. Writers do that too. We fall for some characters more than others. I liked writing Rowonowski. I wondered about his scar. I didn’t know where it came from, either.

So with all of this background, imagine my dismay when my beta reader returned my pages with the comments, “Do you really need Rowonowski? Can’t XXX do the interview? And that second meeting, can’t that be cut completely?”

The answer was no, and then yes and another yes. I didn’t really need Rowonowski, because XXX could indeed do the interview. And in fact, it would be better if XXX did the interview because he was a bigger part of the story, and XXX and the protagonist would benefit from more time together on the page. That would make the second meeting with Rowonowski superfluous.

My beta reader was right, and so there came the painful decision: get rid of Rowonowski.

I didn’t reassign him or kill him or disgrace him. I did worse. I deleted him.

Deleting a character is rough. First, there’s all the work you put into the scene where he appears. You think that squinting thing invented itself? I had to come up with that, and use it, and make sure it made sense in the scene, and that it served the function of distracting my protagonist. And the personal background, that was gravy, but still, I put time into it because I needed to understand Rowonowski in order to make him consistent and logical as a character.

Now I don’t need any of that. No scar. No cell phone fantasy. No small back yard wedding. It’s sad. Now that I’m deleting him, I’m kind of sorry I ever invented him.

Bye bye, Rowonowski. You no longer exist. There’s a chance I’ll use you in a future story, but I suspect not. I geared you so much to this one, I’m not sure I can picture you in someone else’s plot, so I guess this is your eulogy.  If it’s any comfort, this hurts me more than it hurts you.

Have you ever cut out a character you invented, and liked, or maybe hated, for the good of the story? What does your deletion graveyard look like?

August Heatwave Reading List

RamonaGravitarEvery summer, when the doldrums of heat hit and I feel as wilted as the impatiens in my front porch planter, I think of a short story I studied in high school: August Heat by William Fryer Harvey. I re-read it every summer, as a reminder of why I fell in love with short stories.

Reading this story, you can feel the oppressive, brutal, maddening heat. You can understand the confusion of the two men—each an artist in his field—who discover one another by happenstance. Or, is it happenstance? Or, fate? Or, the heat?

Another story I remember from high school is “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, though my memory about this one was jogged by recent events rather than the weather. If anyone believes that the short story is no longer a relevant form, this tale of hunting big game might change your mind.

Thinking about both of these stories made me remember others, and want to read others. Last week, on my Facebook wall, I asked friends to recall memorable short stories they studied in high school. I put together a list (below).

What struck me about the list was the timeliness—or perhaps, timelessness—of these classic stories.

After all, Bernice bobbed her hair because she was bullied into it. The sound of thunder warned people about being poor stewards of the earth. A woman locked in a room with yellow wallpaper went mad from post-partum depression. A man goes adrift figuratively and denounces his country, and was set adrift literally….

Maybe there really are no new stories.

Check out the reading list below. Did I miss a memorable story from your high school reading list?

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken

“The Fun They Had” by Isaac Asimov

The Stone Boy” by Gina Berriault

By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury

“I Sing the Body Electric” by Ray Bradbury

“The Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury

“There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury

“The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury

The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant

“A Rose for Emily” by Willliam Faulkner

“Bernice Bobs Her Hair” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Procurator of Judea” by Anatole France

The Dinner Party” by Mona Gardner

“The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“The Man Without a Country” by Edward Everett Hale

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

The Ransom of Red Chief” by O. Henry

The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes

“Rikki Tikki Tavi” by Rudyard Kipling

“The Haircut” by Ring Lardner

“A Piece of Steak” by Jack London

“To Build a Fire” by Jack London

“The Doll’s House” by Katherine Mansfield

“A Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield

“Survival Ship” by Judith Merril

A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

The Phone Call” by Dorothy Parker

“The Waltz” by Dorothy Parker

The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe

“Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe

“The Tell-tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter

“Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson

The Lady, or the Tiger?” by Frank R. Stockton

The Catbird Seat” by James Thurber

The Dog that Bit People” by James Thurber

The Night the Bed Fell” by James Thurber

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain

Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

“The Hat” by Jessamyn West

Thank you to my Facebook friends for sharing their stories, and to the high school teachers and librarians who introduced us to these classics.

Guest post at The Insecure Writer’s Support Group

RamonaGravitarToday I have the pleasure of guest blogging for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. This IWSG’s purpose is to encourage writers to discuss their fears and triumphs, challenges and accomplishments. It’s run by working writers and the group welcomes new and experienced writers:

“Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!”

My post is called The Sprint Method of Writing. It offers advice on how to establish a daily writing routine as well as how to use a journal to help with daily writing tasks.

Inquisitive Adventures

RamonaGravitarI took a walk on the wide side this past weekend and wrote a haiku. I also made a handmade book.

A course on haiku and micro-books was taught by my friend and writing colleague, JM Reinbold. Joanne and I go way back, all the way back to this: Continue reading “Inquisitive Adventures”

A Down the Street Writing Retreat

RamonaGravitarLast week, my neighbor, aka Walking Friend, went off to a tropical vacation. I stayed home and fed her tropical fish.

My friend is organized. She left out pre-measured cups of fish food, a bag for mail and newspapers, and an invitation to me to eat the strawberries and pineapple in the fridge; to drink any and as much of their liquor as I’d like; and to “stay a little while and write, if you want to!” Continue reading “A Down the Street Writing Retreat”

The 10 Task To-Do List

RamonaGravitarOn an otherwise dreary morning, I ventured into an office supply store determined not to buy all of Aisle 9. I get into trouble around shiny pens and pretty pencils, whimsical sticky notes, glossy-paged journals, and fancy scissors. I would say the siren’s call is worse when Mercury is in retrograde, but it doesn’t matter what Mercury is up to when it comes to my weakness about office supplies. I’m thinking about starting a support group. Continue reading “The 10 Task To-Do List”

Q&A at Writers Who Kill

RamonaGravitarToday, I am answering questions about editing, working on anthologies, writing, my writing, and what I like to read on vacation at the Writers Who Kill blog.

The Writers Who Kill are a group of mystery authors who post each day. Their Welcome Wednesday spot presents a Q&A to guest authors, agents, and editors. I’m pleased to be their guest today.