What I Learned Writing Dreamlander: Why Writers Should Never Hit Delete

The delete button is both the writer’s best friend and worst enemy. It gets the best friend nod for saving us from being stuck with every little (or lotta) bit of dreck we happen to write. (Can you imagine the mess we’d have at the end of a manuscript if we had to keep every single word we put on paper? Can you imagine the crippling pressure whenever you wrote one of those words?)

But that doesn’t mean the delete button is without its downfalls.

Today, we continue with our month-long series of text and video posts discussing some of the writing (and life) lessons I learned while writing my upcoming fantasy novel Dreamlander (available December 2). And one of the biggest of those lessons was also one of the simplest:

Never delete.

Never ever delete.

Never ever EVER delete.

Let me repeat that just to make sure everyone in the cheap seats can hear:

NEVER DOGGONE EVER DELETE!

How to Delete Without Actually Deleting

So, now that we’ve got that cleared up, let me note that I am actually aware of the total contradiction there. Delete, but don’t delete. How exactly is that supposed to work?

Well, as you’ve probably already figured out (being among the top percentile of clever blog readers, of course), there are ways and means of secretly stashing all the ugly lovelies we’re forced to delete from our manuscripts for one reason or another.

Mostly (okay, so entirely) these ways boil down to a task every bit as arduous as creating and copy/pasting into a new file. Since all self-respecting writers are supposed to be imaginative in naming things, I call my file “Deleted Data.” Killer, right?

But you know what’s really killer about it?

Its size. Dreamlander’s finished draft weighed in at 181,000 words. Wanna take a guess on the size of my delete file (or, actually, three delete files, by the time all was said and done)?

Try this on for size: 191,000 words.

In other words, the stuff I deleted from the book makes a bigger book than the book itself.

At first glance, that sounds like all kinds of painful. But let me put http://www.incredibleblogs.com/ this in perspective with a few qualifiers.

1. Some of those words are duplicates, since certain sections were actually deleted more than once.

2. Some of those words actually made it in to the book. I cut them, put them back in, and never took them out of the delete file.

3. It’s also true, however, that some of my deleted data never made it into the file at all, either through an oversight on my part or just sheer laziness.

But suffice it that I have saved a Godzilla-sized file of throwaway words. And that file has saved me a ton of work.

Why?

Three Reasons a Delete File Saves Writers Work

1. Deleting hard-won, beloved words is tough. Removing them to a separate file allows you to take them out of your manuscript without losing them entirely. It eases the pain of separation and makes killing those darlings just a little bit easier.

2. Sometimes writers change their minds. Have you ever written a chapter, condemned it as junk while in a bad mood, and deleted it, only to realize that—whoops!—you just made a major mistake? By the time Dreamlander was finished, several scenes I had abandoned early on in the process had made their way back into the book. Had I permanently deleted them, I would have been forced to start entirely from scratch.

3. Just because a scene (or part of a scene) didn’t work doesn’t mean it might not be handy for the sake of reference. Remembering I wrote a particular sentence, only to be unable to find it in my manuscript, can be frustrating. But if I can also search my deleted data, I have a much better chance of convincing myself I’m not so loony as my cats sometimes think.

Bottom line: delete files are a safety net. And in a journey as potentially perilous as writing, why not take a few easy precautions to save yourself time and stress later on?

***

Don’t forget to vote for which prize you’d like to win in the Dreamlander Launch Party Grand Prize Drawing on December 2!

Tell me your opinion: Do you keep a delete file?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Awesome file title! I love it.

  2. I’m sure I’ll find some use for my character profiles, someday perhaps. Its just finding a good setting. Sometimes if I don’t find enough information on a setting, I also tend to put a character profile to the side as well.

  3. Settings and characters – it all has to come together to create a whole story. But the beauty of the digital age is that setting research opportunities are always just a mouse click away.

  4. As a vestige of my years in the newspaper business, I create a “delete” file named OVERSET for each extended project. The OVERSET file is often as long as the finished work.

  5. I like to think of those heavy delete files as the shadow of the iceberg under the water of our stories. They’re what makes it all float.

  6. I like to keep a copy of every edit I make. This is usually done by adding a date to each version.

  7. The date method is my favorite as well. It’s the simplest and most intuitive way of keeping track.

  8. Did you read the conversation on Slate between George Saunders and his longtime editor, Andy Ward?

    There’s a nice middle section that deals with the “extras” that don’t make it all the way through the writing/editing process.

    http://www.slate.com/authors.george_saunders.html

  9. Yes, I did see that. Always interesting to see how other authors handle the dreaded but always necessary deletes.

  10. L. O. Fencer /simply Lora says

    I never EVER delete them!

    Once, I’ve been foolish enough to delete a whole story (and other times just set some chapters on fire) just because I had a dislike for it at a moment of bad mood… well, surely I became even more furious when I realized what I have done…

    However, I simply call these extras “Notes” now. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve accidentally deleted files more times than I care to think about. It’s always an agonizing realization!