Lessons from Magic School Bus

I recently finished reading my main novel to my writing group, and at our last meeting, we did a final debrief on it. Final consensus? The writing itself is great, but some of the bones, well, they don’t always fit. Especially in regards to some of the world building elements and more importantly, well, what the book is about. Now, I’m already planning on rewriting the book, having come to this same conclusion months ago myself, but some of those weird bones, those world-building extras have been specifically on my mind as of late.

Which brings me to this clip from the childhood classic Magic School Bus. (You’ll have to travel to YouTube for it, but please come back!)

Machine, in a lot of ways is and always has been like Carlos’ instrument. Great concept, lots of ideas…bloopy sound. In the rest of the episode (included at the bottom), the class learns about sound, how it’s made from vibration, how it bounces off of surfaces, that adding extras that disrupt the vibration is a quick way to ruin an instrument.

And boy have I had extras.

Some of them got cut early, some of them affect the plot, some of them, well, let’s just say deep roots are hard to cut.

So, now that I’m planning a rewrite, how am I deciding what to keep and what to axe?

So glad you asked.

First, by listening to feedback. Some of the first changes I made in Machine were because of reader feedback. Now, it’s always wise to take critiques with a grain of salt, to consider its source and how that relates to what you want to accomplish, your audience, etc., but if everyone but you thinks it doesn’t work, that’s probably a clue it doesn’t work, no matter how much of a “true artist” you are (been there, done that). If you really want to keep it, consider what it does for your story, why it’s important, and why other people say it doesn’t work. Maybe the problem isn’t with the idea itself but in how it’s presented. Alternatively, look at different ways the same thing could be accomplished. Could the plot/world element be toned down, tweaked, or replaced by something better? Talk to your critique partners and work through it together. Most importantly, don’t bite their heads off (sorry, Mom…). They can see things you can’t, and they’re trying to help.

Second, test your mind’s eye. If you’re on a planet where everyone is ten feet high and has six arms, but you’re picturing them as six foot six with two, there’s probably a problem. Also look out for whether or not you’re actually using your extras. Does it advance the plot for them to have extra arms? Do they actually use them? Does it affect their culture, clothing, tools, etc.? If not, you probably don’t need them (or need to tweak your plot to make sure they do).

Third, check for purpose. Similar to point two, if your extras don’t have purpose in the plot, you probably don’t need them. More specifically, if they aren’t advancing the plot, they’re probably slowing it down. One of the things I did in Machine over the course of sharing it with my writing group was to go back in and make sure I was calling attention to my extras because they were having trouble keeping them in mind. And they liked that I was doing that, but in the end, they were also confused as to why I did it because none of those extras made a real difference to the story itself. It was shifting attention away from where it needed to be.

Four, search your motivations. If you’ve been working on your project for a long time like I have, it’s easy to lose objective focus. This can take a few different forms, the main two being fixedness and sentiment. The first is the idea that things are the way they are because that’s the way they’ve always been and therefore should remain so. The second is the idea that because you like something it deserves to stay (a close cousin to this is “because it looks cool”). Both are rich enemies of creativity and improvement. Both can be equally difficult to root out. If you find yourself thinking “it has to be this way because…” or not wanting to get rid of something even when you suspect it’s not good or could be better, you might have them on their hands. Another motivation to dig out is fear. If you’re hiding behind an extra to avoid reality or research (for example, they don’t have, says, dogs on your planet because you don’t know anything about dogs), you might have a fear problem.

Fifth, make a list of pros and cons. This was the last step I took in making some of my current decisions regarding what to keep or lose. This is partly because I felt like a lot of my extras could make the bar for the previous points, and partly because I needed that hard proof to confirm that really, as I suspected deep down, they couldn’t. Hey ho, sentimentality. This is a really practical way to root out some of those hidden factors, too. For example, on my lists of pros, most of them had things like “Easy way to set mood” or “Advances plot,” but when I really looked at them, I realized that “Easy way to set mood” was really code for “Lazy shortcut to create mood” and that the plot advancements these extras made could really be accomplished through more simple and practical means. On my cons were even worse reasons, mostly tied in to fears of getting things wrong. So if you’re on the fence, make a list, and most importantly, be honest.

Sixth, relax, because you can always change things back. Because editing is like throwing stones in a pond and can create a lot of unexpected ripples, it’s easy to get cowed into not wanting to change things. But your job is to throw stones, to make as many ripples as you can until you reach that perfect resonance with your story, that perfect mirrored lake that says what you want to say. So in the wise words of Miss Frizzle, “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy,” because your novel deserves it. Bonus, once you do, you’ll get that thrill of victory that Carlos does somewhere around the 21:10 mark in the video below when he finally gets it.

So, what about you? Have you ever had extras get in your way? What about sentiment or fixedness? How did you find it, and what helped you to cut it out? Let me know in the comments below!


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