Cut! (aka Ouch!) ~ Deleting Scenes

Posted: March 18, 2011 in Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

     Every writer must eventually part ways with some of his or her favorite 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 unecessary sentence) is substantially less time-consuming than the second (which is the deletion of an entire scene.)  In deleting an uneeded 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 uneccessary 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 judgment 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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Comments
  1. Mimi Williams says:

    Either I’m a damned good teacher, or your a damned good student, but you have really grabbed this one and made it make sense. And you were not that bad that day in the cemetary! I’m sure you went home and threw a tantrum, but you were gracious and attentive as I told you to shred half that chapter.

    BTW – I hope the weather warms up soon. We do some of our best writing in that cemetary!

  2. You, Mimi… are a damned good teacher. I would tell anyone that. And yeah… I miss the cemetary… oddly…

  3. Ashlae says:

    Thank you for sharing this Jared! A lot of writers struggle with this very thing. Defining what is too much in the description or comprehension of a scene is sometimes a battle. As a writer you want to be able to paint a picture for your reader; but at the same time you don’t want to bore the hell out of them. The same goes for dialog too. (Which I might say I really hate doing. And has become a constant war for me. :P) It’s one thing to write one individuals thoughts and feelings; but the interaction of two characters I find it pain inducing. It’s like seeing someone with high stress levels and an uncontrollable twitch.

    Good luck to you too on your travels. 🙂

  4. Linda Bennett says:

    Another fabulous blog! Mimi is a damn good teacher and you are a damn good student.
    .(*_~).

  5. Joe Ostler says:

    I can’t believe I am just getting around to reading your blog but gotta tell you that I like it. Fun to see your thoughts since usually I can hardly get in two words to you without fear of You-Know-Who crashing down on me. Keep it up man.

  6. Carla Stutz says:

    Jared,
    How in the world did you find my blog and the post about Mr. Allred?! I remember you very well, though you have changed a lot from that little blonde kid I used to know. 🙂

    Looks like you’ve found your passion in writing; that’s wonderful! I’m glad you left a comment for me — it’s good to know you’re doing well. Take care ~

    • Carla,
      Well, it was kind of an accident really. I was googling Mt. Pleasant, looking for blogs and things (because I haven’t lived there since 1992) and I came across your name and thought, “No way…” so I checked the blog out and sure enough, it was you! It’s great to hear from you and I hope all is well. Thanks for reading my blog as well. I will check in on yours from time to time for sure.
      Be well.

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