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Friday 18 March 2011

Cut! (aka Ouch!) ~ Deleting Scenes

Every writer must eventually part ways with some of his or her favourite creations for the sake of the greater good. There are dozens of names for this process: Slaughtering your sacred cows, Killing your darlings, or the term I find most fitting, Cutting the fat. No matter what you choose to call it though, it sucks.

There are two types of “cuts”, and although both can be equally painful, the first one (which is the removal of an unnecessary sentence) is substantially less time-consuming than the second (which is the deletion of an entire scene.) In deleting an unneeded sentence, I can at least take solace in the fact that I didn't spend hours and hours working on it. For me, these kinds of space-wasters are usually just flowery details that, for some reason, I've become unreasonably attached to. I guess this is where my inner poet likes to rear his stubborn but eloquent and impassioned (and often pompous), beautiful head. (Uncle Carlos is only there to give dirty looks to the main character. Does he really need to be “a blandly handsome man with an air of quick-thinning tolerance about him”?) But over all, I am able to see the ultimate detriment to this kind of self-indulgence, and generally have no trouble toning down the details.

Then there is the second kind of cut: scene deletion. This, for me, has always been far more demoralizing. It’s one thing to just clean up the excess portions of a scene, and quite another to look at it in its entirety and disheartedly realize (or worse be told by an outside source) that the entire piece is basically no good. I got my first real lesson in this right off the bat when my mentor, Kim (Williams-Justesen), and I did the first read through of my first manuscript, The White Room.

We were at the cemetery downtown, (now that I think about it, that sounds very odd. Why were we at the cemetery? Oh yeah… because it’s peaceful, beautiful and well, dead people don’t tend to interrupt), sitting on the lawn on a warm spring day. I was all kinds of excited because it was the first time I’d be able to hear my story out loud and with continuity. Kim began reading. It was a disaster. Instead of gently rowing down the stream as I believed we would be, the first thirteen pages or so felt more like being in an aluminum canoe on a wind-peeved sea. Had I had any Dramamine handy, I would have taken it… and without protest to the inevitable drooling drug daze those pills always put me in. Anyway, Kim was kind enough to continue to the end of the chapter which thankfully, had smoothed out a bit. When she was done, she looked at the pages in her hand and then looked at me. “You want to know what I think?” she asked. I said that yes, I did indeed want to know, but in truth, I wasn’t sure I really did. She turned the manuscript back to page one, and then one after another, plucked page after page away from the stack. Somewhere around mid-chapter one, she stopped and pointed to a paragraph in the middle of the page. “I think this is where your story starts,” she said.

I was stunned. I argued. I made excuses. I rationalized and justified. But worst of all, in truth… I agreed with her. The reality was that the first half of that chapter was nothing more than a confusing warm-up. I’d struck on some significant points in those pages, but over all, it was crap. I stewed the rest of the day as we read the other chapters, and that night, I went home with my tail between my legs and started re-writing and implanting the few decent scraps from the trash pages, as needed into the newer, better beginning. I made a decision that day that I would never let that happen again. Unfortunately, however, I think that, at least to some degree, writing some crap is inevitable.

For me there are two reasons an unnecessary scene gets written in the first place. The first, and most common reason, is that my “muse” gets an inspired hair up his ass… and just runs like hell with it, as if trying to outrun my sense of good judgement and discrimination. I start with a plan… and end up not only in left field, but in an altogether different tennis tournament entirely. When the muse gets this kind of head start, I find myself reading page after page of unholy gibberish that, if ever seen by a professional, would seal my fate as a failed writer. Forever.

The second reason I write bad scenes is simple: laziness. I don’t feel like writing, but I know I have to, and therefore, I sit down and very simply fill white space with whatever nonsense comes into my mind. Perhaps my character needs to pee. At times like these, that seems pretty important. Or maybe Henry the optometrist will spend a few hours petting the dog. Nevermind that there was no dog before now. Now Henry has a dog. Yep. Pet the dog, it is. That will fill the empty space. That being said, I actually prefer this kind of “very bad scene.” It’s much easier to say goodbye to utter nonsense than to the flowery grandeur of my terribly possessive (and I suspect, alcoholic,) muse.

Any way you look at it, editing is a bitch. You wind up deleting hours of your life you will never get back, but alas… it’s necessary, and what works for me is I try to get it as close to perfect as I can, not because I’m such a perfectionist, but because I am insecure enough that I really don’t want to invite any more criticism than necessary. Still, it’s a drink-inducing, hair-pulling, teeth-grinding emotional calamity that although I might (let’s be honest) wish on my worst enemy, I do not wish on you. Happy travels!

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