Cutting the great scene of doom

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Sergei Eisenstein in a photograph appropriate to a post on editing

This is a little story about problems, about editing, and about idée fixe. There may be a moral. I make no promises.

I had been planning Oneiromancer for years before I set metaphorical pen to paper. When I did actually start to write it was because I had an idea: a vision, almost, which involved two entirely new, off-the-cuff characters watching one of my old heroes – term loosely used – fighting a monster. This became the novel’s first scene: it seems I always begin at the beginning, when a scene is so strong in my mind that it burns onto the page.

In this case it’s proved to be a problem. Through four drafts I’ve laboured (and you can an early effort here and a rewrite here) and tinkered and hammered it around the steel anvil of dogged determination. But I’ve never been quite satisfied. So after a first-ten-pages feedback, which suggested the novel started in the wrong place, I decided to cut the damn thing altogether.

Except I didn’t. What I decided to do was to move it. Because it wasn’t at all bad, and also contained useful information. It served to

  • Give character, both in background and in personality
  • Set out some info about the world and the rules thereof, and thus…
  • …helped tell the reader what sort of book they were reading
  • Set up some causality: two characters now knew of a third

All valuable stuff. So I lifted it wholesale, did some rather painful abbreviation and set it down later on.

Except that didn’t work either. The only place I could find to place it – to maintain cause-and-effect and internal logic – was as a memory within a dream. This isn’t as odd as it perhaps sounds, because dreams are central to the story (you know what the title means, right?). But placing it here was much difficulter. I now had problems with tense (one past within another past – I’m sure there are proper terms for these, but I don’t know them) and with the same character watching ‘herself’. It also slowed down the story.

But the scene had to stay, right? It contained important information. It added depth. It set up future events. And it had to be in that place…

Wait.

Hang on a second.

Let’s just think. What’s actually important? The only things that matter are character and that thread of consequence. So the question should not be ‘how can I crowbar this scene into my novel?’ but ‘what’s the best way to give the reader this information?’

Cut the scene. Cut the whole damn thing. It’s not working. Rewrite around the problem, and suddenly everything flows again.

Sometimes working on words helps: you can always make something read better, always polish, hone and sharpen. But sometimes you’re just scratching at the margins. The whole situation needs to change. Step back. Think. Everything you want to achieve can be achieved in a variety of ways. If what you’re doing isn’t working, maybe you’re not trying the right approach.

Here endeth the lesson.

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Loglines

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The elevator pitch. The tagline. The logline. Does it matter? Is it essential to have one at your fingertips?

I’m undecided. I’m currently reading a book on writing that advises you start with your one-line statement before actually writing the story itself. I can kind of see why: getting ‘this is what I’m writing’ front and foremost in the brain will aid focus, keep bringing you back to what really matters.

And then, of course, there’s the sell. A good logline will form the basis of your back-cover blurb. It’ll help you craft a strong, attention-grabbing letter to an agent or publisher (although gimmicky, over-dramatised ‘yelling’ is of course to be avoided) and make it easier to explain your market and sum up the ‘feel’ of your novel.

It’s also good training. To say something coherent, intelligent, mood-setting and intriguing in one or two sentences is a little like writing flash-fiction. Every word matters. Laziness is a sin. The punctuation must be perfect, the hook must reel in the fish.

With that in mind, then, here’s my loglines for my back-catalogue, hastily knocked-out for shits and giggles:

The Ballad of Lady Grace

When a cocky musician is accused of the worst of crimes, the only person he can turn to is the person who’s always hated him. Can they get to the truth – and get their own act together?

Chivalry

In the heat of the city it’s riot season once again. With religious tensions building, a disturbed man stumbles upon a group of gamers who might just help him find himself. But just what are they working towards? Will they find safety, or will they bring about the end of nations?

Night Shift

In the freezing wastes of Antarctica a killer walks. It’s down to the inexperienced security chief to find the culprit – and to find himself – before the crew all freeze beneath the night shift.

Oneiromancer

They come through our dreams; now they walk amongst us and the war we never knew we were fighting has been lost. It’s down to society’s dregs to face their worst fears before the world becomes an endless nightmare.

I’m still not convinced that a good logline is essential but it’s a fun little challenge. For me it remains a work in progress; just how do you distil your magnum opus into a single line? To get it right takes a lot longer than the fifteen minutes I’ve spent on these.

I’d welcome your thoughts – and feel free to share your loglines in the comments.

Out loud

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Another draft completed. Straight into the next one. But this time we’ll be doing things a little differently.

As I’m sure you know, my last run-through of Oneiromancer was my major copy-edit. Post-reader-feedback, it was all about the plot and the story; I was copy-and-pasting, doing major rewrites and stitching together a tale that made sense, had depth and resonance.

But every change creates the potential for errors. Every draft introduces new text and every new word carries a chance of a mistake. Now I’m trying and find and fix those errors.

But this is about more than just typos. It’s also about the perfectly serviceable words that do their jobs but add nothing to the overall experience. It’s about poor rhythm, weak dialogue, unnecessary emphasis. It’s using three words where one – better chosen – will do. The acceptable is not good enough.

It’s amazing how difficult this can be. The mind is lazy. The eye is an unreliable tool and has a tendency to skip, to not see.

So I am reading my story out loud.

This has a number of benefits. Turning words on a page into sound forces you, the author, to read more closely. There’s no skipping sections, no chance of the eye sliding unseeing across the page. It makes you slow down, to see what’s really there and not what should be there.

You’re also confronted by the rhythms of your prose in a way the conscious mind has never experienced. Anything unclear, unfocussed, is brought into sharp relief. I’ve so far covered around seventy pages in this way: I thought my strength as a writer was my grasp of rhythm and an instinctive understanding of sentence length and effect. Turns out I was talking out of my arse.

I’m finding so many redundancies. I’ve been forced to rewrite more paragraphs to give clarity – almost as if I was writing from scratch. I’ve found so much to cut. On almost every page I’ve been forced to ask ‘what am I actually trying to say here?’ and then finding the simplest, clearest way to say it.

Simplicity is almost always good. Circumlocution should only come in dialogue, and then only if the character is especially circumlocutious.

So today’s advice is to read your manuscript out loud. It’s a slow process but one I’m sure will make my prose tighter, sharper and error-freeier.

And, let’s be honest, anything that cuts the word-count is a good thing. My MS is currently 137,000 words or thereabouts; if I can find 5,000 words of ramble to cut then I can allow myself an extra 2,500 of character and story.

Which then will have to be read (out loud) again and again to kill the inevitable errors I’ll have introduced.

Recursion

A prince falls in love with a commoner
They met because he was forced from his family by a civil war
The civil war started because the council couldn’t agree on the succession
The council couldn’t agree because it was formed of houses who hated each other
They hated each other because their grandparents had a blood-feud
They had a blood-feud because a daughter broke off an engagement with a rival’s son

DTRH

A farmer finds a crown in a bog
The crown was thrown there by a defeated monarch
The monarch was defeated by a usurper and fled to a monastery
The monastery was founded by the widowed sister of a noble house
The sister was accused of dominating her husband
The husband had a secret love with the head of his warband

A fleet sets out from a space-station to launch one last desperate attack
The space-station is the last holding of a once-proud empire
The empire is reduced because its homeland was destroyed when it hit a moonlet
The moonlet was induced into the planet’s orbit by a secret cabal
The cabal was formed in response to the empire’s expansion
The empire was expanding in response to outside aggression

Where do you start these stories? What sort of story will you tell? How much background do you provide? Surely not all of it – not in detail, and not all at once. How much do you, as author, need to know? None of the ‘first tier’ statements are the beginning; you could trace causation right back to the Big Bang if you were so minded.

The universe dissolves into heat-death and a grey soup of atoms is all that remains
The last stars turn supernova
The surviving life-forms flee into another universe
Entropy is inevitable
The stars coalesce and ignite; planets find their orbits; the first stirrings of life arise
A God-Machine creates the Big Bang

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There is no right answer. You start the story at the moment of fascination for you, the author. You write the story you want to write; you give the detail you think is relevant and interesting. You add detail subtly, drip-feed backstory. But you must remember that there’s always history. You never start at the very beginning because that’s impossible; there is no beginning.

Your characters don’t walk in vacuum. The world you create – be it a world purely of your own imagination or one taken from the world outside your window – has come in the way you depict because everyone and everything has a past. Why is the villain so twisted? Who created the magic sword (and why)? Who built that castle on that hill (and are we talking about a monarch or a mason)?

The readers don’t necessarily need the answers. You have to choose what’s important, what’s interesting and what your readers need to know.

And you can rely on your audience to tell you if you’ve got it wrong.

Reading for pleasure and profit

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I’ve read a fair few manuscripts in my time. Not books; they’re two-a-penny. But manuscripts: works-in-progress; proofs. And I’m coming to the conclusion that the mind works differently when faced with a sheet of paper – even on one of those new-fangled e-reader-y type things – rather than a packaged work.

As you struggle as a writer you’re going to come across much advice and instruction, and one of the oft-repeated suggestions is that you read your favourite novels critically. You try to dissect your friends, in essence, to see what makes them tick. I’ve never, ever, managed to follow this advice. When I read a book I want to be absorbed. I want the flow of words to wash me away.

It’s true that sometimes I see things that the author wouldn’t want me to. Especially in the first few chapters – before I’m totally immersed – I can see dialogue I think of as hammy, and there’s nothing worse then that ‘why don’t they just talk’ moment of stupidity for breaking me from the flow. But mostly a published book just transports me. And I want it to. If it doesn’t then it’s not worked.

That’s not to say that I don’t learn from books. I most certainly do. But the learning is mostly subconscious; absorbing lessons deep within the skin, many-time repeated patterns of plot (and grammar, and punctuation, and form) that slowly soak into me.

But manuscripts work differently. If someone hands you a manuscript it’s either because they want validation – nothing more to say about that – or because they want to get better. So you read more critically. You’re looking for errors. You’re looking for ways their work can be improved. You’re seeing roads the author themselves never saw. You’re asking questions in a way you simply don’t when reading a published work.

Maybe it’s the sense of completion you have when you take up a novel: this is what the author and publisher wanted. Of course this isn’t necessarily true, but that’s the illusion. With a manuscript you’re looking at a stage in development. This, I think, makes you read in a different way. It’s easier to spot errors – not just typos and grammar-sins, but plot-holes and mis-characterisations.

I guess it’s similar to the role of the professional critic, or maybe even the book-club reader. You forego the experience in order to have something (vaguely) intelligent to say.

Which is why I advise all writers to engage in manuscript exchanges with others. You don’t have to sacrifice the joy of reading to improve as an author. I’ve learnt how others see plot, and dialogue, and setting – all the individual components of a written work. Even comparing feedback helps: it’s remarkable how one reader will notice poor grammar or dialogue, for example, whilst you’ve been looking at motivation and character. You’re also likely to encounter other genres and to grow both as a reader and a writer.

So don’t lead your favourite friend to the abattoir. Instead seek out opportunities to help other writers with their work. Don’t see it as a waste of valuable writing time because you’ll be helping yourself as well as them.

Editing comes in waves

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Editing comes in waves. There is the initial draft, which has errors large and small; typos aplenty mixed in with trailing plot-vines, character instability and shoddy dialogue. So the primary edit is, for me at least, a case of pruning out the missteps and giving the sickly plants a little more manure.

Then you enter your prize cactus into a competition and all its many flaws are coldly, cruelly exposed. You feel like an amateur; what you thought was a beautiful bloom is merely a canker. So it’s back to the hothouse for another round of editing.

This time you have to make wholesale changes. You have to uproot whole stems, repot, replant, replace. Isolate whole lines: trim and deadhead and mature before they can be reintegrated into the Shubbery of Gloriousness. Only then can you get to grips with the little things: the leaves must be buffed to a shine and here, perhaps, the metaphor collapses under the weight of its own preposterousness.

I’ve taken Oneiromancer for public scrutiny. To say it failed would be overstatement; I got respect for what I was trying to achieve. But it wasn’t where I want it to be. I want it to be perfect and it’s not. That’s fine. That’s why I got feedback.

Now I’m nearing the end of my (first) Big Edit. It’s been a nightmare of copy-and-pasting: whole sections ripped up, rewritten and reinserted elsewhere. Every such change has involved the surrounding scenes being altered to accommodate as previously dead characters come back to life, or need excising, or have new information. To my annoyance I’ve seen the word-count swell back towards the 140k mark; I’d been hoping to write a 110k novel. I can only hope the extra 30k ‘adds value,’ as they say. As someone says, at least.

So when this draft is finished I’m done, right? Oh, but that were the case. As soon as this is done – after a large drink or two – it’ll be time for another read-through. A copy-edit always needs to be followed by a line-edit. This is not only for the myriad fresh typos that I’ve doubtless introduced but to examine the aspects I’ve not been looking at here. Little things like voice, character and the actual words.

Wave

And then it’ll be back out into the wider world for more feedback. Hopefully I can still dredge up another beta-reader or two to plunge me back into the deep, shark-infested pool of editation. But after that comes the sell: to agents, to publishers, to hope and despair.

Editing comes in waves, as I said at the beginning. My experience with agents means that, even if I get to a place where I’m confident enough to approach them, I know that I’ll have at least one more tsunami of a rewrite. For now, though, it’s just a case of keeping my head above water. For the first time in eighteen months at sea I can see the shore.

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming until you feel the glorious, sun-baked sand beneath your feet.

Revenge of the Betas

Oneiromancer Draft 2 is finished. It is now with my reading team; in a month or so we will convene and I’ll learn of all the ways in which I have failed. Then it’ll be back to the Editorium with me to fix all my myriad mistakes.

Some months ago I wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to a theoretical beta-reader: now it’s time again for me to think about what I actually want to gain from the experience and how to go about asking for it. Because there is good criticism and there’s bad criticism and it’s possible for you, the author, to make sure you get the one you’re after.

These are the questions I’m asking myself. Unfortunately the human brain (mine, at least) isn’t designed to see these things in one’s own work. So I’m relying on others to filter these things for me. I’m not planning on sending this list out to my chums ahead of review/evisceration because I don’t want to lead their thoughts. But I will be taking this list with me, as a reminder to myself of what I’m trying to learn.

So:

  • Structure:
    • Does the novel start in the right place/in the right way?
    • Are there any areas where the story drags? Do any scenes seem too slow, or would any benefit from being drawn further out?
    • Does the work take too long to get going?
    • Should any scenes be cut?
    • Should any scenes be added?
    • Are the characters introduced coherently?
    • Does the ending satisfy?
  • Mythos:
    • This is a fantasy and so a certain amount of world-building is involved. Is there too much? Or too little?
    • Is it communicated in the right way? Too fast, too slow, too obscure or too spoon-fed?
    • Is my mythos cohesive and believable?
    • Is there anything that you didn’t understand/makes no sense?
    • Have I contradicted myself at any point?
  • Character:
    • Backstory: too much? Too little?
    • Do the characters act out of character at all? Are their motives clear?
    • Are the characters sufficiently distinct? Do they have clear – and not too annoying – voices?
  • Plot:
    • Are there any points where you wondered why my cast acted as they did?
    • Were there any moments where you were screaming ‘No! No, that’s dumb! Why not just…?”
    • Were all actions clearly caused by previous events and not introduced by our old friend Ms Deus Ex?
    • Was there, in fact, a coherent plot?
    • Were all the threads resolved?

It’s especially important to get this sort of feedback because I was essentially making things up as I went along. You come up with one idea and then, a dozen chapters later, you realised the consequences are much greater than you thought. “Well if she can create a sword out of thick air, why can’t she just sever this Gordian knot with a thought?” It’s amazing what you can miss.

I’m not (that) interested in typos, grammatical errors, dialogue and even basic quality of writing. Not at this stage. I’m going to have to rework this piece enough times: each draft will improve the actual writing. At this stage I’m much more concerned with whether the world I’ve built actually works.

It’s always worth asking yourself what you want to find through criticism. Secretly I think we all want to be told that we’re wonderful, that we’ve written something unique for the ages. But even secretly-er we all have anxieties about what we’ve done. The only way to come out with a quality product is to face these fears head on, admit your uncertainties and Get Help. That’s what I’m trying to do here. Some of the points above are generic: we’re all worried about character; any of us might have let a plot-thread hang loose.

Some, however, are specific to this particular work. For me it’s the particular rules of the world – the laws of magic, if you’ll permit me such an odious phrase. So when the group meets and I’m confronted with my shortcomings I’ll know to prick up my ears whenever someone mentions what to me are the underlying fundamentals of my world’s backstory. And so on.

That, at least is the plan. But, as we all know, no plans ever survive contact with the enemy.