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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Proof

I’ve done something that at least sounds moderately impressive this month. With malice aforethought, with eyes wide open and with a degree of trepidation, I’ve joined my first ever professional body and can now officially – and with a certain degree of self-mockery – display this badge:

sfep-badge-entry-level-member-retina

I’ve also paid to take a proofreading course, which means that my war against typos has been stepped up to new levels.

I’m doing this for a couple of reasons. One to teach myself the jargon: just as you can know the rules of grammar without knowing the terminology, proofreading can be done without training. But it has its own tics and mannerisms that it can only be of benefit to learn. This will, I hope, ultimately save me time both in my own editing and in communication with other professionals.

Technical languages like the rules of grammar (of which I am more or less entirely ignorant) are a shorthand and a pretension. You don’t need to understand dilithium crystals to make a spaceship fly, but understanding them may help you communicate with engineers.

I’m hoping that learning to proofread may help me be a better writer. If I know what the industry considers to be mistakes, if I can see what they’re looking for, the hope is that I can incorporate these ‘rules’ into my writing at an earlier stage. Or, if I’m going to break them, I can break them good and hard and with malice aforethought. And write ‘STET’* in the margin in huge letters and underline it several times.

The biggest reason for doing a proofreading course, however, is simple and obvious: I’d like to earn a little cash. Like the vast majority of writers I don’t earn money – not a penny – from my calling. I have a paid job that keeps me alive and sane, but 2017 will see me taking six months out. I need something to do. I have skills and I need to monetise them.

This sounds mercenary but it’s life, and life is sometimes cold and dark. I’ve not the temperament for teaching and writing copy for bingo sites will kill my creativity. What other options do I have? I’ve spent ten hard years on fiction writing. It’s what I know. I also need to live, and to help my family live. I also have some experience, what with all my work helping other writers with their works-in-progress.

It also keeps me locked into the world of words. Really it’s just a way of expanding what I already do: read manuscripts and give feedback. If I can pick up a few contacts through freelancing and getting my name in the world of publishing then all to the good.

My biggest worry is that I’m branching away from my true love – creative writing – and losing time from what I could be doing: writing, self-promoting and building my own career. This next year will be a crucial one for me. I am good at what I do – I have to believe that – but whether I can make a future for myself as an author remains to be seen.

Oh, and if you need any proofreading done please drop me a line. ‘Honest Rob’ is at your command; reasonable rates, satisfaction guaranteed etc etc.

 

*Apparently they don’t do this any more. I am sorely disappointed.

Back to the egg

michaelangelo

A metaphor. By Michaelangelo, so you can tell it’s quality

The journey matters. That’s what a story is: the account of an ‘adventure’, be it a romp through demon-infested caverns or the tale of an old woman’s last days in splendid isolation. And, at its heart, the journey is not a physical voyage but a state of mind. A satisfying story will be one where the characters finish up as different people to those who set out.

This is what I’m getting wrong.

It’s been a gradual feeling creeping over me over the course of several drafts. I have a large cast. Some of the characters I’ve worked with were created on the spur of the moment, designed to fill a need and who have then grown. Others I’ve had in my head for years and I’m finally getting round to setting in an actual story.

Guess which ones I’ve done badly.

Yup, that’s right: it’s the ones I’ve held longest. They don’t grow. They don’t have the arcs. What I’m gradually coming to realise is that I’ve started their tales in the wrong place. They are too complete, too mature: they’ve fought their battles already and have found peace. Great for them but no good for my readers.

When we first see a character in a novel they need to be flawed. They might have incredible powers; they might be geniuses, they might have colossal strength but they don’t have a personality without a flaw. They must have a weakness – either physical or emotional or social – that we must see them conquer.

Which is why the next draft of Oneiromancer must de-age some of my characters. I possibly mean that literally – just take my characters back in time a little – but the crucial thing is that they start at an earlier stage of their development. I’ve skipped the introduction and rushed straight to the climax. No-one likes a Mary-Sue: I must take them back to when they were apprentices, not masters.

This is difficult. I’ve lived with these people for a long time – for too long. They’re fixed in my brain. Hell, they’re wish-fulfilment – the sort of people I want to be. Before I can get it right I need to let go. I need to redefine them in my mind, to divorce them; to sever the emotional bond I’ve built up over a decade or more.

This is a challenge. And I hate hard work.

Fear of deadlines

writers-clock

There is one thing that scares me about the prospect of writing for a living, and it’s the thing I want most. It may be an illusion, an unfounded fear, but the prospect of writing a book a year is troubling me.

I should say that this is not an imminent prospect. Nor do I know anyone in the situation. This concern is solely based on casual lines thrown out in author interviews online and in ‘Writing’ magazine. But the knowledge that ‘one book a year’ is standard in publishing contracts – exactly the sort of thing I’ve strived for over the last ten years – is currently atop my mind.

I’m not worried about suffering writer’s block or my well of ideas running dry. Hell, I’ve got ideas all over the place; my biggest problem is which to draw and which to keep sheathed. I’m just worried about the simply logistics of getting a publishable work out to a specific timescale.

Let’s look at this in detail. My current work-in-progress is Oneiromancer. The first draft of that took nine months to get down. I then did a quick read-through to kill obvious errors – the plotlines that I set up then chose not to develop – and to weave in anything that, come the end, I felt I’d not set up properly. That took two months. Then it went to beta-readers and I had the agonising two-month wait for feedback. That’s over a year right there.

My readers gave good advice, spotted errors, spotted weaknesses, that needed addressing. This led to my major copy-edit. That took six months. Now I’m doing my read-out-loud through to improve rhythm, dialogue and pace as well as to further hunt out typos and other errors. That’ll take another three months. And then..? Back to readers? Or out to agents?

That’s 22 months minimum before I’ve got something approaching a decent standard.

And that’s what I’m worried about. I care about the quality of my output. I could churn out words fast enough to keep the publishing wolves from the door, but only at the expense of quality. The time I spend editing is the most important time. I want to produce good work – words that grab, a story that bites and gnaws and doesn’t let go.

A book a year? A draft a year, no problem: but a work worthy of publication? I’m not so sure.

It doesn’t help that I have a more-or-less full-time job. I’m under no illusions; a book contract won’t allow me to give up Paid Employment. I’ll be writing – like I do now – alongside other intractable commitments.

It’s quite possible I’m worrying unnecessarily. Quite apart from the improbability of my finding an agent in the first place, it’s my hope that experience shortens the process. As I grow the errors should diminish. You also have the benefit of an agent acting as primary reader. Again I’m basing this on author interviews alongside my own limited experience, but an agent will read a draft and will be able to tell you where the work is falling down and where it needs to be propped up. Add in professional editors and the whole process should be shortened.

This is all theoretical. I have no agent. I have no publisher. But I do have work I believe in, and a (possibly misguided) feeling that each work I produce takes me closer to my goal. And, for all I’ve just written, a traditional publishing contract remains my target. I’m good enough. I’m walking the right roads. I’ll get there.

But that goal isn’t the end of the story. It’s merely another page on a longer, harder journey: a trek littered with Deadlines and the fear of pushing out underdeveloped work. I’ve read too many rushed novels to know that isn’t a possibility. But how to avoid falling into that trap myself?

Editing comes in waves

Wave3

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.

The nasty scene

Mr Punch

I’m at The Nasty Scene.

I’ve been dreading this. The most controversial scene in my novel; never have I written something I’m so uncertain about. It’s grown to occupy a special place in my canon – a watershed, a step forwards in maturity, confidence and self-assertion. But also sadistic, according to one beta-reader, and a moment that more than one person said would make them stop reading any further.

So what’s a boy to do? I’ve already chopped and changed and dragged it from its original home – about a third of the way through the novel to just past the half. In doing so I’ve had to seriously rewrite adjacent scenes and – with great reluctance – sacrifice a scene I rather liked. I’m also engaged with making the nasty scene better in itself: tackling errors of point-of-view and language.

But is it fundamentally unsaveable? Surely it’s possible to rewrite it so the outcome, story-wise, is the same without the vicious extremes. Of course it is; just because it’s become an idée fixe doesn’t mean I can’t shift my paradigm and dig a way round the obstacle.

But I wrote the scene like this for a reason. It’s supposed to be unpleasant. It’s supposed to be upsetting, to be a moment of visceral horror. It’s meant to be nasty. A key moment in the plot (although, being truly honest to myself, right now it’s hard to remember quite why it’s so important). It happens because of Reasons and causes Consequences. That’s what plot’s all about, right?

Mr Punch Temple of Fame

I guess the question I’m asking is this: how far is too far?

I know the answer to this: you’ve gone too far when the scene you’ve written detracts from the novel as a whole; when it’s out-of-step, a lurch to the side, pornography-in-Beatrix-Potter-style unsettlement.

But this is not the only unpleasant scene in Oneiromancer. It’s not a children’s novel. It has death and blood and pain (and hope too; it’s not relentlessly grim, I promise) and to pull punches would be to write a different story. I can’t take out a scene just because it offends the sensibilities of a few.

It’s a question of balance. Unfortunately I don’t have the experience (yet) to know where my pivot is.

You can read a bit more about this here, if you’re in any way interested.

L’espirit d’escalier

L’espirit d’escalier: A conversational remark or rejoinder that only occurs to someone after the opportunity to make it has passed. Also known as l‘espirit de l’escalier. But I think the first scans better. Literally ‘the spirit of the staircase’.

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I was on the bus the other day. I was reading. Neither of these things are especially noteworthy or unusual. And then I had an idea.

Now I’ve written before on ideas. Slippery, untrustworthy things that wriggle and convulse, sneer and mock. Generally they’re more trouble than they’re worth, and this one will probably turn out to be the same. Despite – or possibly because of – it seeming like a good one.

This particular idea relates to an off-the-cuff comment made my one of my beta-readers in our Oneiromancer-shakedown. To paraphrase: ‘Halfway through the novel I thought [character] was going to be a traitor.’ What I didn’t say was that I’d been toying with that very idea; if not actually making them a betrayer then trying to make the reader think they were. It was one of maybe a half-dozen ideas that I tried to seed as subplots; and, like the rest, it was dropped because the novel was already getting way out of hand length-wise.

And so I reined in my ambition. I cut out plans for a general election. I skipped the gangland elements and the peasant uprising. And, because I couldn’t work out how to do it properly, I omitted the ‘betrayal’ aspect. The story was supposed to be 100-120k: the first draft actually ended up around 140k before I trimmed it back to 133k or thereabouts.

And then I had this idea. A vision of a single scene just before the climax. A trick, an illusion, a cantrip to make the audience – and my main character – doubt everything they’d previously experienced.

Trouble is it came to me 18 months too late.

Now I’m wedded, chained, welded to the conclusion I’ve already devised. My characters have walked into their destinies. The sheer fact of existence has altered my mind, frozen my hands in their cruel deformity. The wind has changed. I’m stuck this way.

Now I have two choices. I can try and crowbar this scene in; I can try and shatter the ice and do a major rewrite, shifting my conclusion to God-knows-where. Or I can sheath this idea, add it to my mental toolbox and cannibilise it for future works. Right now I don’t which road is best.

But at least that choice is mine. One of the problems with the instant-fix of self-publishing is that work is pushed out too soon, is half-baked, phony. The staircase is too short and the apples hang too close. Would a little more time allow quality to shine through?

Or is it best to get a piece finished, out there and move on to the next as soon as possible?