The Garbage Can Test for Writers
EC Sheedy Tweeted me this afternoon about today’s blog, asking, “Are you doing the “garbage can? A little bit scary for writers, that one :-)”
Although “scary” (and I do agree!), the Garbage Can Test has always come through for me. So, on request from a recent email conversation between Pen Warriors, here’s the Garbage Can Test described in Chapter 11 of Writing Romance, 3rd Edition
The Garbage Can Test stumbled out of my mouth several years ago during a weekend workshop at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts. One of the writers attending asked for help with a complicated plot involving bad guys, a sheriff, and a heroine’s imprisoned brother. It sounded like good action but I’d become confused by the details and uncertain what to recommend.
On impulse – if I’d thought it out ahead, I might not have had the nerve – I held up her manuscript and said, “Okay, we both know there’s a problem and we don’t know how to fix it. Let’s pretend for a minute that I’m going to throw this manuscript into the garbage.”
I dropped the manuscript onto the floor beside me and she leaned forward in her seat, hands gripping the arms of her chair.
“It’s gone. Into the garbage. You’re never going to be able to write it. You’ll never see the characters again. I want you to think about that.” I could feel her thinking and worried that I’d gone too far. I was winging it and hoped I knew what I was doing. “If you could reach in and pick out just one part of that story,” I asked, “just one thing you don’t want to let go of, what would it be?”
What she picked surprised me, because I hadn’t known what was important to her in the story. It wasn’t the sheriff or the brother in jail. It wasn’t the bad guys. It was something I’d lost sight of, but when she grabbed that “one thing” it was suddenly crystal clear to both of us.
A few weeks later I told Naomi Horton about my experience with the garbage can. She was stalled in her book at the time but when she tried the garbage can, she realized the thing she cared about was the hero she’d visualized, a man who had lived undercover so long he was more accustomed to lies than truth. She threw out her planned heroine and wrote No Lies Between Us with a heroine whose motivation and backstory fit the hero — a woman who vowed she’d never be lied to again. The next time I attended one of Naomi’s lectures, I heard her mention the Vanessa Grant Garbage Can Test.
Hmm. I put the test in my own arsenal of writer’s tools, and used it myself for the first time in writing Yesterday’s Vows. Since then I’ve used the garbage can test at some point on almost every book I’ve written. In the rare event when it hasn’t worked, it’s been because I’ve been at a point in my life as a writer where I need to take a break, where I have to step back from writing and re-examine my goals and myself as a person.
Not long ago my current work-in-progress took a scary trip through the garbage can when I feared I’d written 30,000 words of a story that was going nowhere. Not so, growled my detective heroine, Alix Hyde, when she climbed out of the garbage can clutching a passionate desire to right a past wrong, despite the knowledge that her actions could destroy the life she’d fought so hard to build.
Has your idea ground to a halt? Are your characters going down in quicksand? Do you wonder what the point of your story is? Is it time to try the garbage can?
Sit in a comfortable chair, take a few deep breaths and relax.
Close your eyes and imagine you are holding your story in your hands.
Visualize yourself throwing the story and all its papers into your garbage can. If you have trouble imagining this, collect the papers together and physically throw them into an empty garbage can.
Tell yourself it’s gone. You’ll never be able to write that story now. Let yourself feel the loss.
If all you feel is relief, then let it go, but if you feel as if you’ve just tossed your first-born into the fire, then…
If you could reach in and pick out just one part of that story, one thing you don’t want to let go of, what would it be?
Let everything else go. Begin again, starting from that one thing.
For more about the Garbage Can Test, see Writing Romance, 3rd Edition.
This blog is also posted on http://penwarriors.com
May the muse be with you.