CUTS, “Save as,” Mary Queen of Scots, and Protestant Martyrs
At the end of every chapter, I type a long line ————– then write CUTS. Then I pile up everything I have taken out. I don’t think of this section as a garbage heap; CUTS are more like the minor leagues. Sometimes a subordinate phrase gets called back up ; sometimes entire paragraphs, sometimes entire sections, say, on meal times in the 18th century which seemed fascinating at the time, but on second thought seemed to slow the story down, but then on third thought seemed to flesh things out very nicely.
I never really know what I am using until the book is really and truly out of my hands, which, in the case of The Marys, is probably a year away. The problem is keeping track of everything, remembering what is “in” and what is “out.” I’ve never understood the “save as” feature. It feels good to admit this. I always nod when people say they rely on it, but really I don’t have the fainted idea how it works. My belief is that when you hit “save as” it creates a second document on the spot which you have to name and which, if you are me, you then confuse with the page you are currently working on. Which is which? If the old document is “saved as,” then the new document is the thing you are continuing to type in? Would it not be more accurate to call this function “Save as is”? I think the problem is that dangling “as.”
At any rate, it occurred to me today that it would be interesting to look at CUTS from past books, everything I excised. Maybe I would find some kind of message from myself to myself. Maybe there is another book, a parallel book, a shadow book that has been marching along during the creation of these others. Or maybe not.
When I got my first book contract, I decided that my reader needed some background material before I began. Otherwise, how could they understand my subject, Anne Bradstreet, who was born in 1612? Back I went one hundred years before Anne’s birth. So much happened! How was I to choose! There was Henry VIII and all those queens. There were revolts and Bloody Mary. There were betrayals and upheavals, famines and Calvinism. There was Shakespeare. Somehow I settled on Mary Queen of Scots. I remember writing more than 50 pages and being struck by the fact that her severed head showed signs of life — her eyes blinked or her lips moved — I do not remember exactly, nor do I remember my rationale for connecting Mary to Anne Bradstreet, but I do recall thinking my passages on her head were rather beautiful.
My agent checked in with me at the end of that first summer. “Do you have a first chapter?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” I said, and sent her Mary Queen of Scots, feeling a swell of pride. Who would have thought? Anne Bradstreet and Mary Queen of Scots. Truly, an original idea. Historical context is everything, isn’t it? While I waited for praise from my agent, I stumbled on some eyewitness accounts of the deaths of Protestant martyrs, again in the century before Anne was born. I was overwhelmed by the material; there were so many martyrs! So much great stuff! I didn’t want to slow my story down — something my agent had counseled me against — but these deaths were so poignant. Readers would definitely want to know about this: The last words while tied to the stake. The children throwing stones. The burning Protestants professing their love for God. Would I stand firm in my faith if I was burning in a fire? I called a friend of mine who worked as a nurse in a burn unit. She told me about how burns worked. The stages of pain. I wrote every detail down. I was researching! I was finding out great things! I decided the burned martyrs would be my next chapter, a great addition to Mary Queen of Scots, and the perfect backdrop for Anne’s birth.
When my agent got back to me, she was very gentle. “This is great stuff, Charlotte. Great.”
“I’m not quite sure where it goes,” I said tentatively. “Maybe, in a kind of extended preface, you know? Like a section called ‘historical background?’ ”
She was quiet for a second. And then she said, “I’m not sure Mary Queen of Scots belongs in a book about Anne Bradstreet.”
I took this in and felt a deep wave of despair. Probably the burn victims didn’t either. Fortunately, she wasn’t through.
“Save it.” she said, “you never know. Maybe Mary will be in your next book.”
I am still grateful to her. I think this is the origin of CUTS. And although I don’t know what I did with those pages on Mary Queen of Scots, I did manage to smuggle some of those poor Protestants into Mistress Bradstreet.