I’ve got a scene in the novel that I’m editing that’s always been a favorite. It’s fast paced, exciting, well timed, lots of action…. And I have to cut it out. Why? Because it doesn’t advance the story.
I love this scene! It came together so well when I wrote it. It has a unique rhythm. I even remember the music I listened too while I wrote it. (Crazy Benny by Safri Duo) Everything about it clicks! And it doesn’t lead anywhere.
Soon it will be part of the trash on the cutting room floor. That makes me a little sad, but I have to toughen myself up and do it.
Below is the scene. Matilda is a human and she is fighting Ariella, a large, sentient cat. Matilda has fashioned extendable claws to mimic Ariella’s. They’re fighting with swords Fellician (cat people) style.
They began with the Ritual of Weighing, where each of the competitors chose her weapon. Taking their stance across from one another, a sharp snap of a bongo signaled the start of the match. Matilda attacked quickly and low, going for her opponent’s knees. Ariella’s reach was longer, but Matilda’s comparatively diminutive stature next to hers, made getting under the big cat’s guard easy.
Ariella swatted Matilda away with her tail as if she were a gnat. Matilda flew across the stage, landing with a grunt. Shaking her head, she rose, taking her stance again.
The bongo signaled as before, Ariella attacked, moving in on Matilda’s exposed left side. Maneuvering rapidly, Matilda jumped for her block, grabbing her dagger as she sped by. She parried Arriella’s attack, barely avoiding a blow from her other side. Ariella had grabbed her dagger too. Matilda caught Ariella’s knife in her claws, which she extended for that purpose.
A gasp from the crowd as Ariella extended hers, grappling with Matilda briefly before the woman moved out the of big cat’s range. The two of them slashed, kicked, and danced around the stage, hardly a sound but the bongo accompaniment and the clang of their weapons above their ragged breathing.
Ariella stooped to slash at Matilda’s legs. The human woman jumped lightly up and rolled over Ariella’s back, landing in a crouch on the other side. Back and forth they dodged and parried, swooping into an opening and back out again to avoid their opponent’s blows.
It looked as if Matilda were winning, then Ariella rushed in and got her pinned to one side of the stage, advancing, blade held ready before her, preparing for the killing blow. Calmly taking a deep breath, Matilda ran at Ariella, sprung forward and up, doing a handless cartwheel over the big cat’s head, flipped as she landed spinning to face her opponent. Getting her feet under her, Matilda launched herself at the large feline, knocking Ariella down and sitting on her chest, blade ready at the throat, Matilda prepared for the kill.
Striking her blow, she didn’t notice Ariella’s dagger coming up behind her, deploying the handle blade until too late. Both blades struck home simultaneously, blood sprayed everywhere.
Sometimes that all important scene—isn’t. We as authors may love it, it may be the best thing we’ve ever written. It might be noteworthy and enough to move our readers to tears, but it has to go. Take a deep breath and delete it. There, the world didn’t end, did it?
In our editing phase, authors must often be brutal with their work. This is especially true early on in your career. My first novels lack the spark and sparkle of my more recent work. I was still exploring, still looking for my voice. Once I found it, I geared up and never went back. Looking at my early work, which the current editing project is, I see all the mistakes I made. Now, I have to correct them!
One of my biggest errors was saying too much. Just because we know it as authors doesn’t mean:
- That our characters know it.
- That our audience needs to know it.
- That it will matter to anyone but us in the long run.
I read a novel not long ago where the author had obviously spent a lot of time learning some interesting historical facts about the time period in which the book was set. After three pages of badly revealed history, I set the book aside and won’t ever go back to it. As a reader, I didn’t need to know that. It didn’t further the action at all. Obviously, the author was so excited about what he’d found out, he was set to tell everyone all about it.
Your novel isn’t about the facts you’ve discovered. Honestly, most of the time, your readers don’t care. That’s for non-fiction writing. Work in what’s necessary for your readers to understand the story and leave the rest in your notes.
Not all unnecessary scenes are factual. The scene I showed above is actually a staged fight scene. Two characters are demonstrating their skill for their shipmates. It’s very visual, lots of description…. Completely useless. It’s followed closely by a second, just as useless, scene. I’m also very proud of the second passage, but it’s got to go as well, for the same reason—it’s cumbersome. It takes the reader nowhere.
As I explore this novel, the second in my sci-fi series, I realize that more and more of the scenes need to be heavily edited or cut entirely. I call this phase of my editing the slash and burn phase. It ain’t pretty. It’s brutal, harsh and dirty. Later on, I pretty it up, but right now it’s raw with big gaping holes.
Often, in this phase, I also look at the sequencing of the story. With this novel, I had started it in a completely different spot from where the first left off. Instead of doing that, I went back to the end of the first novel and made it the beginning of the second as it literally takes up at the same moment the other left off.
Important thing to keep in mind: SAVE YOUR DELETED PASSAGES!
I make a file that I call a cut from file. I take the scenes, paragraphs and pages that I cut from the story and put it in a special file to save it. I may not want it for that particular book, but I might want to refer to the information or even use some of it in a different novel.
One of my author friends did that with passages he’d cut from different books in a series. He managed to get nearly three more books from those deleted scenes.
As I go back through the novel, I will find places where I need transitional passages to fill in the holes I left with my slash and burn. This second, less primal phase, is where the healing begins.
By the third pass through my novel, I’m looking for the small errors—verb tenses, typos, vague words and any number of other pet peeves we as authors all possess. In this phase, I try to pretty it up even more, laying a heavy coat of cosmetics on it. At this stage, it’s often helpful to read the text aloud and/ or have someone else read it. A second pair of eyes catches things we miss.
1. Print a copy of troublesome spots, read through them aloud and look for errors.
2. If you’re having difficulty with pacing, try writing to music. Find something that has the emotion you’re trying to convey and listen to it before and during your writing session. The right kind of music can make a world of difference. I had a final fight scene in one of my novels that was too slow. I put in some fast moving instrumental guitar (Joe Satriani and Jimi Hendrix) and rewrote it.
3. Sticky notes are wonderful! Jot notes to yourself on a printed copy of the novel to help you remember what to do on a particular page or remind yourself where you left off.
4. Use bright colored pens when you edit. Select something dark enough to read but will catch your eye on the printed page. As you add the corrections to your computer file, check them off in a different color.
5. When editing on the computer, make comments to yourself as you go. Believe it or not, you will not remember all the things you want to do and hand written notes can be lost. As you make the corrections, delete the comments.
6. Read through what you wrote in a prior writing session. Not only does this remind you about what you’ve already written, it’s a good editing habit. When you find an error, correct it right away or make an in text comment so you can go back and find it later. Don’t expect to remember—trust me, you won’t.
7. Don’t try to do everything at once. Do the big things, like cutting scenes, first. Why make grammar and spelling corrections to something you’re going to cut out later?
Editing is probably the most difficult and frustrating part of writing, but it’s also the most necessary. Agents and publishing companies get hundreds of submissions a day. A well written, good looking manuscript will catch their interest more than a badly presented one. When editing costs them money, why would they accept something that needs a lot of work over something that doesn’t?
We all get anxious to get our work into the hands of someone who will publish it. No first draft is perfect. Every novel needs editing. Slow down, spend some extra time, and make sure you’re sending the best book you possibly can.