Monday, April 04, 2011

What stays in the heart

I identify with that feeling of despair in seeing some scenes hit the cutting room floor. There’s one, out of all the scenes and parts of scenes I’ve cut from several novels, that haunts me still and I’m determined to slip back in between the pages one day, if given a chance.  

The above is part of a comment I left last week on Writer Unboxed, a writing blog that's fast becoming one of my most frequently visited. It was in response to a post by Stephanie Cowell, on the subject of creating a rising plot line, and the struggle she faces in that creation.

By her own admission, Stephanie isn't a plotter. She puts her characters on the page and follows them, and creates a plot in the process. I'm more of a plotter than that. In fact, my current novel in progress was more thoroughly plotted before I wrote the first word than any novel I've ever begun.

But when it comes to each chapter, each scene, I like to give my characters some wiggle room. I know the main plot points or character beats and conflict I want to hit, but I like to remain open to the characters saying something unexpected, or taking an action I hadn't foreseen weeks or months ago when I conceived their story line and what their goals and conflicts would be. When they do, I let them run with it for a bit to see what might come of it. There have been times when giving them rein led me to a revelation about their character that I mightn't have reached any other way.

But this writing method has its down side. It gives rise to some lengthy scenes and chapters, and the need to go back when I'm further along in the story, or perhaps not until the first draft is written, and trim, trim, trim back everything that I began to develop, or allowed the characters to indulge in, but proved unneeded later on.

This is needful for two reasons: tighter storytelling makes for a better paced and more compelling read, and my first drafts always run ridiculously far over the acceptable word count for CBA historical fiction. There's no choice but to cut.

Sometimes the cuts are just a line here and there, or a paragraph. Sometimes it's whole scenes that need to go, because they aren't pulling their story weight.There is always worth in the the scenes or partial scenes I end up having to cut, or I never would have written them. They deepen character, or give complexity to a conflict, or lend the overall story atmosphere and mood. But if they don't move the story forward as well, they have to go.

"I am always in despair of all the stuff I have to cut. It stays in my heart," Stephanie Cowell wrote at Writer Unboxed last week. It's true. There's a low level grieving process that goes on in my soul when this happens. Stephanie's post felt like an arm around the shoulder, a voice saying, "Yeah, I know. It hurts."

I'm sure Stephanie and I aren't the only writers who write long and then cut back. If you do this as well, have you developed any tricks for enduring the pain? Or does it get easier with time and practice? Are there more writers who write spare prose and find themselves having to go back and add material? I admit, that's something so foreign to my process that it's hard to imagine. Oh, the luxury to be able to add to a story!

~photo courtesy Carol Walker, Creative Commons, Wiki


  1. Anonymous10:40 AM


    I followed you over from Writer Unboxed and was so happy to see you were writing about your earlier comment -- the scene you cut that haunts you still. I think you're fortunate if you write too much and then have to cut back. Though I'm still unpubbed, I find the stuff I write that way tends to result in the best most surprising scenes. When I write spare, the scenes often don't flesh out later. Anyway, it is interesting and I hope you find a place for your great scene and come back and share it.
    You've got a beautiful blog and I know I'll be coming back again.


  2. Kathy, thank you for coming over to visit here, and for your kind words. I love Writer Unboxed. It's a fairly new discovery for me but it's fast become one of my favorite writing blogs.

    There's an older version of that scene I cut (the one I want so much to put back into the story) in this blog post:

    You will probably have to paste that into the browser, as I have yet to learn how to make links live in these comments. I've since edited the scene to make it past tense instead of present tense. It's a flashback scene, and for a brief while I was enamored with writing such scenes in present tense. I'm mostly over that now. :)

  3. I give my characters lots of wiggle room, too. Once they have a personality and are grounded in a plot it is amazing the life they take on of their own! I overwrite some, but I'm getting better at it. My first novel was over by 5,000 words and it killed me to have to cut. It was a great lesson in writing tight to have to trim those words, but I had the help of my partner who slashed away - oh. how. painful. I was,however, amazed how how much can be removed by trimming extraneous words and just tightening up the prose. But there were some scenes that had to go. And they will forever remain in my heart! Now I really try to keep in mind if the scene I am writing is really serving the story and ask myself if this is something that the reader really needs to know in detail. Thanks for the headsup on Writer Unboxed.

  4. Carla, thank God for patient (and ruthless) writer friends who can help slash that wordy prose. I had one too, Lauri, who helped me cut a 325,000 word novel to its present 127,000. That's over half the book... gone. Most of it needful. One or two scenes.... as I said, I want so much to put them back.

    Line by line tightening is mostly what I do now. I was 37,000 words into my current WIP and realized, that's over a third of the final word count, but I'm not a third of the way through the plot, quite. So this week I'm trimming back this first section before I press on to the next. My goal is to get it down to 30K for now, knowing that once the first draft is finished there will be more tightening.

    I often think of my novels as Victorian ladies squeezed into corsets a couple sizes too small. :)

  5. LOL! Love that corset analogy!
    It's good that you are now able to trim as you go. That should be very helpful to you. Happy writing...and editing.