To Cut or Not to Cut #amediting

Sulking be Edgar Degas (1870) courtesy The Met. Clearly the author is having a bad writing day and his friend is, unhelpfully, trying to distract him.

I’ve been rolling through the first revision of my WIP (work in progress) for a week or so, tweaking forty pages a day, when I hit a problem. I had a couple of sequential scenes that, when written, felt intrinsic to the story and quite plausible but on this pass weren’t working. I didn’t know what the problem was. Should I cut them? I didn’t want to but I couldn’t articulate a reason why. Should I revise them? How? I didn’t know what was wrong with them.

So I decided to sleep on it. My reward was weird dreams. In one dream, I’m watching a man being dragged down a river by a sea bass that he had hooked. It was a thing he liked to do, like sea bass charioting. Eventually the fish got away and he had to trudge back up the river, which was only waist-deep, to stake out his favorite sea-bass catching spot. In another dream, I deftly revised a scene in a thrilling chase story, like North by Northwest, and just before I was to send it out to the betas, I realized there was no McGuffin – no reason for the bad guys to be chasing the good guy. In a third dream, I came up with a beautiful subplot that would make the perfect counterpoint to the main plot. But when I woke up, I didn’t know what the main plot was and the subplot had nothing to do with my WIP.

Thus we suffer.

As I was walking through the house to my writing spot, I decided to cut the two scenes. But then when I sat down, I had not the heart.  One more re-read convinced me that I had not written into the scenes any emotional investment – they were merely a recitation of facts. Aha! So I slipped in some internal dialogue. For the moment, the scenes have been granted a reprieve.

Writers: do you have a systematic process for deciding why a scene isn’t working and how it could be fixed?

Readers: what engages you in a scene?  

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  1. This is such a tough one. We get too close to what we are writing. Is it simply wrong, or we are tired or it, or is it missing that umph. I think this is why we have Beta readers.

  2. “Press down,” they used to yell at me when I belonged to writing group. I was the sole mystery writer. The rest of them were writing memoir and other kinds of fiction. Damn, if they didn’t teach me that pressing down can eek out exactly the emotion needed to save a scene. So Keenan, press down and press on!

  3. For some reason I love cutting. If a scene just doesn’t push the narrative along, out it goes. I might save it and use it somewhere else, but if it doesn’t serve a purpose, I cut.

    The way I see it, if I could throw away decades of mix-tapes with music from my teens through adulthood when I moved house, I can cut a scene that’s not helping my novel.

    BUT, if I can find a reason for that scene to exist with a revision, then it stays. I usually don’t stress over it. It’s like cleaning. Throwing out trash feels good.

  4. For me a story comes like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I have a flash of an idea, (the big picture) and then the pieces get scattered everywhere and show up out of order. And while I know they belong, like pieces of a scene, I can’t quite figure our how to work them in. Ultimately I’ve decided there’s a place for everything, and everything in its place. It’s just finding that damn place and knowing it will all come together, and frequently— after enough massaging— it all does. I guess what I’m saying is trust the process. If you felt the scene worked it probably does. Move it around a bit and viola…you may be surprised.

  5. I still hate to see them go so when I do cut a chunk out, I put them in my outtakes file. I have brought some of them back. Someday, I should look at those old outtakes files and see if there’s anything in there that could be worked into a good short story.

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