I spent the better part of Saturday demolishing a commercial unit. My dad has several units that need to be remodeled as different tenants come in and, since he is out of the country currently, we made a deal that was a win/win and resulted in demolition.
The thing that is different about this kind of demolition than what you might see on TV is that, because of the nature of the business he is in, saving as many materials a possible is the desired goal. We don’t just go in with sledge hammers and have at it. Instead, we identify the walls that really need to come down, what can stay in place (the whole bathroom always stays), and then evaluate which materials in the walls are, in fact, reusable. We use caution when removing the windows, we don’t use caution at all in preserving any of the sheetrock.
So, as I’m sure you guessed, as I was tearing down walls and drywall and in the midst of a dusty mess, I thought about writing – specifically the revision process. Here are a few steps that make sense in both situations.
Get clear on the big picture
The first thing to be aware of when starting a demolition is what the space is now and what the space could be in the future. Going from a dance studio to an automotive repair shop? Both need offices and open spaces to work, but in very different ways. Transitioning from a photography studio to a CrossFit gym? There are fewer requirements of small spaces and a need to have open spaces and different sound systems (these are all real transitions that have taken place in my dad’s commercial center).
So too, when looking at a story, we as the creators and the authors need to know what kind of story we want to tell. Yes, identifying the audience is important – it’s like determining the location of a business. But after that? What is the story you want to tell? Why is this story the one that needs to be focused on right now? Why did you select the main character that you did and how is using him/her going to benefit the story in a way different than anyone else in the story?
Have an awareness of structure
If you haven’t grown up in a house that talks about construction all the time, you may not fully understand how some walls are more valuable than others (if you were/are prolific with either Legos or Lincoln Logs, you might be okay). There are load-bearing walls in every structure. Without the drywall or plaster on, they’d be easy to identify because the top (header) is much thicker than all the other walls. Depending on the house, the number of essential walls may be greater, but as soon as someone cuts into one of these walls or (worse) knocks it down, the stability of the home is compromised, and the timeline to fix it is very, very small.
Just as it takes some time to understand the structure of a home, so too it make take a while to understand the structure of each story. I feel relatively certain that, after a completed draft, most of us can identify the key elements that will hold the story together, but making sure those elements are in an appropriate place and that they are strong enough to hold the story in place takes a bit more time to completely understand. Putting in the time to get this part right will pay off, promise.
Know what to handle with care
My husband and I had to remove two windows from the unit we were demolishing that had been framed in. That means the single plate of glass was resting against wood, was held in place by wood. We had to use caution and care to remove the supports and then the windows. We both cut our hands in the process, but got them out with only the smallest nick in one of them.
There may be a moment, when you are in the midst of revising, when you want to through the metaphorical sledge hammer at everything, call it all a loss and move on from the destruction. I have yet to read a story – any kind, written at any level – that didn’t have some elements that were great. Those passages are worth saving, are worth the work and effort to salvage even if everything around them has to go. They are often easily identifiable by how fragile they made you feel when you wrote them, and how fragile you feel when revising around them. Slow down and take the effort to preserve the windows into your story.
Have the courage to toss the unessential
There are very rarely situations when saving previously used drywall is worth the hassle. Because of the way that it is put up (screws through it into each stud (the vertical pieces of wood that make up the walls) and then “taped & mudded” over to hide holes and seams) the process of trying to remove in a whole piece is practically impossible. And just punching holes through the material doesn’t make the task to any faster. Instead, tracking the seams, freeing a corner, and pulling down the largest piece possible decreases the time, effort, and dust.
There are going to be parts of your story that just need to be tossed. Sure, they probably made things pretty at the time, but as you revise, as the story becomes more solid and showcases what it really was meant to be, these pretty things just get in the way of the structure you are trying to mend. Just as with drywall, it is often best to find a break in the story where the pretty stuff has become a distraction, read through to identify when the distraction fades again, and cut the whole thing out. The benefit writing has over construction is that sometimes, these things that you are tossing from one story can, in fact, be used in another.
Acknowledge there will be some pain
Today, I have butterfly bandages pulling together a decent gash on the back of my leg, some bruises and cuts on my hand, some sore muscles from when I did need to use the sledge hammer (demolition secret: use your abs more than your arms with this tool), and my hand STILL healing from reconstruction is clearly swollen. There’s a reason my dad always carried Band-Aids in his wallet. One daughter stepped on a nail (not deep, still sore), and my son has some scraps on his legs and arms from when he tried to do the jump and pull method of demolition (we are calling it his lesson in physics).
Sure, it’s easy to listen to the advice of writers who say “Kill your darlings,” but actually doing it is hard. You created those scenes, characters, speeches. You internalized their dialogues and longings and motivations. I didn’t have any emotional connection to the walls that I was tearing down, and this is why it is easy for us to see what others need to do in their stories, and is difficult to know what to cut in our own. Before my family started demolition yesterday, we got a clear picture on what was coming down, what needed to be saved, and kept communicating about the best course of action to proceed. You may be able to dream up the story, and even draft the story on your own. You will never be able to see the potential on your own, though. That’s where the pain can come in, but the end result will be worth it.
Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.