Cutting the great scene of doom

film-photo-eisenstein-editing.jpg

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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The Frankenstein pass

What the hell are scenes for anyway? To move the story along, natch. But reality moves in tiny, tiny movements: you can’t tell the audience every little single thing. You can’t have the protagonist wondering whether she should put the bins out now or wait until morning. Not unless that’s crucial to the story. ‘Showing not telling’ is great. But sometimes you have to cover things in absentia. Otherwise you’re cast immediately into snoozeville.

When you’re first-drafting you’re finding your way. You’re marking the path. Sometimes you need to write scenes of blather just so you know what your characters are thinking: to work the background, the backstory. Second draft is, in large part, getting rid of these sections and condensing the novel to make it grip and flow and to carry the readers along on a tide of thrill.

But knowing which scenes to lose and which to keep is a bugger. You wrote those sections because things are happening. Boring things, maybe, but things that, to some extent at least, matter. That foreshadow later events. That explain things. That get inside your character’s heads. How do you know what matters and what doesn’t?

Last session I cut a scene that I decided was better shown offscreen: the arrest of a minor character. But later on I need to have him interviewed by the police. It’s a bit of a jump to have a previously free character suddenly appear in a cell. I can’t quite square it. Should I put the scene back in? I also want to trim down the interrogation itself. But all these cuts threaten to destroy rationality: how much of a leap will my audience be prepared to swallow? How much explanation will ruin the flow?

A novel is not a static thing. It grows, it shrinks, it grows again. At the moment – partly because I have this artificial idea of how long I want the damn thing to be – I’m working on trimming away the fat. I envisaged the novel at around 115k; the first draft weighed in over 140k. So the scissors are out. But I have a feeling that my next draft, as yet unimagined, will be mostly addition. Story comes first. Description – of both location and emotion – is most likely going to be the next big thing for me. Eventually I’ll find my happy place: a lean, taut core with enough depth to raise the damn thing above the pulp potboilers and the penny dreadfuls that give genre a bad name.

Anyway, word count is artificial. A story should to be as long as it needs to be. I worry that by fighting to get down to an acceptable level (and what does that mean anyway?) I’m sacrificing quality.

Writing is a balancing act. It’s about choices – hard, painful choices, just like the ones your characters are making. The answer, of course, is to find a proper critique group and you let your word-baby be tamed by wider perceptions. You need to have the opinions of those who haven’t lived through your anxieties, who are seeing the work fresh and can spot waffle at a hundred paces. The best thing you can do as a writer is to allow yourself to get it wrong and to accept that you’re never going to produce a work of genius without these angels in human form. Of course what you’ve done is precious to you, but you can’t allow yourself to hold it too tightly. Otherwise you’ll smother your work and it’ll never grow hale and healthy.

In the meantime I struggle with notes and knives, with complexity and continuity. I will not produce a polished, publishable product on this draft. But I’m getting closer. This is my Frankenstein pass. With a little surgery my corpse may yet become an Adonis.