Does anyone else remember that old story, stone soup? My recollection of it is hazy, but the basic gist is this: a man shows up with a stone, saying he’s going to use it to make soup. The villagers are fascinated by the notion of soup made from a stone. One by one, they each add something to the soup, until it’s a rich, simmering stew of meat and vegetables. The stone is the catalyst for the addition of the rest.
You could make all sorts of comparisons between writing and getting soup out of a stone, but I had something more specific in mind. Like the stone that formed the base of that soup, when I start a new book, there’s always a run of writing that feels Particularly Deep. It may just be a few paragraphs, it may be fragments of several chapters, but whatever it is, I prize that portion. Usually, this happens while I’m still finishing up the previous project. I cling to those paragraphs. They’re my reassurance that the next book will get written.
Then a curious thing starts to happen. I write towards them; I write around them. I cut and paste them. I slice and dice them. Bit by bit, however I try to save them, those initial, much-loved paragraphs disappear. Some wind up in my “old chapters file”, others get parsed into pieces of new prose. For the most part, like the stone in the soup, those original paragraphs get lifted out as the new material settles in around them. Suddenly, I have a full chapter or chapters, with nothing of that initial inspiration spurt remaining.
It’s not entirely a pointless exercise. Those early paragraphs, those paragraphs that always seem to get deleted, serve a dual purpose. They help me write my way into my characters. And there’s nothing like words on a page to help produce more words on a page. The knack is knowing when it’s time to hit delete, rather than writing myself in circles trying to keep those precious early paragraphs. After all, if you leave the stone in the soup, you might split a tooth.