Nancy: Making the Cut

Act II Edited Page

Last week, I wrote this post about finding out that Act II of my WIP had gotten away from me and ended up at 41k words, about 8k-10k more words than my target for the act. The length of acts is important for pacing, tension, and keeping the story moving. The prospect of cutting a quarter of the words out of this one before handing it in for a critique seemed daunting.

This week, I can report that I have tamed the beast! At least for first draft purposes. My target was to get down to 35k words or less. After my edits, I made it to just over 34k. I had to ‘kill some of my darlings’ along the way, not the least of which was a scene that I actually kind of loved.

My first pass at edits yielded some good results. I had some sections where I’d tried a few different approaches to a scene, and already had notes like ‘combine these two pages’ and ‘make into one scene’. I thought revising these sections might cut out 4k or 5k for me. I was sadly mistaken. After slogging through these sections and turning them into tight, integrated scenes and hitting the delete button on so much extraneous text, I’d managed to cut about 2500 words. Thorough editing to cut repetitive information and paring down descriptions to the most evocative few points bought me another 1500-word reduction.

To meet my own self-imposed goal of getting down between 30k – 35k words, I needed to cut at least another 2500 words. The problem was, I knew where to find those words. I’d identified a scene for potential cutting upon my first read-through of the Act. But I liked that scene. It brilliantly showcased the essence of each of my three protagonists and one of my antagonists. It had witty banter, flirting, and realistic-sounding girlfriend conversation. It sowed some hints for future developments, and most importantly, conveyed Important Information. That’s when I knew it had to go.

The more I learn about writing at the micro level, down at the scene and even scene beat level, the more I realize that any time I say I need something because the reader must have this uber-important information, I know I’ve missed a chance to do more important things like develop character and move the story to a new place. So here I was with this perfectly lovely scene and these witty characters having these fun interactions. But the characters didn’t grow in the course of this scene. They didn’t end up in a different place from where they’d started. This scene didn’t change any one of the four characters in it in any kind of significant way. On that level, it failed as a scene.

Failing scenes don’t always have to go in the first draft. I’m being particularly cruel to my darlings at this early stage because I’m submitting my work for critique in stages, before having the completed first draft. But even if you’re completing the entire first draft before editing a single one of your beloved words, there will come a day of reckoning when each and every one of your scenes should have to justify its existence. Providing info-dump or telling readers that thing that they absolutely must know at this point in the story are not legitimate reasons for a scene to be there.

To earn its keep, a scene should move a character forward, change something in her, force her to succeed or fail and change or resist change and pay the consequences on some level. It must push the story forward, contribute to rising tension, hurl the characters toward the inevitable point of no return. Every scene must serve the story, and if it doesn’t, if it exists to serve the writer’s interests instead of the story, it must be sacrificed on the story altar.

If you’re a writer, what criteria do you demand your scenes meet to earn their place in your story? If you’re a reader, do you ever find yourself skipping the parts that don’t keep the story moving?

7 thoughts on “Nancy: Making the Cut

  1. From a reading perspective, yes, I skip. Because a lot of what I read is romance, a lot of what I skip are sex scenes, because they don’t do anything for the story. They don’t move the plot forward. It’s just MORE SEX.

    You’re “fortunate” that you had to cut scenes/words. I seem to have the opposite problem. Here I am, a few scenes away from being “finished” with my first draft, and I only have a few more than 50K words! I’m not writing a category romance, either; my word count goal is somewhere between 80-100K. It appears I’m missing stuff, and I think I know what…but that’ll be the topic of a future blog post!

    • Justine, I agree there can be a lot of gratuitous sex in otherwise good books (my own pet peeve is when characters are having sex on the page before I’ve met/care about either of them). But I don’t dismiss sex scenes out of hand, because just like other kinds of scenes, they can move character development/plot forward if done well (big IF there). Sex is one of those areas in life where people often reveal their deepest selves, and seeing that deep revelation or that core personality component changing over the course of the story can be very powerful.

      Frex, in the movie History of Violence [*SPOILER (kind of) ALERT*], in an early sex scene between husband and wife, it’s tender and sweet. In a later scene, when it’s revealed that he was a totally different person before he met her, his violent past has come back to haunt him, and he’ll have to revert in some ways to his old ways to protect his new life/family, sex between husband and wife is totally different – gritty and passionate in a totally different way. And it really makes it clear that nothing, not even the sex between husband and wife, would ever be the same again (IIRC. It’s been a few years, but that’s how it sticks in my mind.)

      Meanwhile, I have people sitting around having dinner and being witty for ten pages at a time. But this writing thing is a process…

  2. I am simply not at that level yet.

    And to be perfectly honest, sometimes I really like infodump, if it’s entertaining and interesting information. I like to sit in a scene and hear all these things.

    And, to be super-honest, I don’t see how fantasy and science fiction can get by without some info dump.

    Maybe someday I’ll be at that level where I can convey a different world that follows different rules completely through action, setting and character (but where does info dump start, and describing the setting end??). But today isn’t that day.

    But anyway, enough about my failings (-:. Do you go through a check-list of some sort to decide where you are going to cut? Or do you simply mark things with your purple pencil to show where you are going to re-think things? Do you always work on paper, or can you do some of this editing on the computer?

    (-: I’ve got a lot of swearing and cursing that I know I need to cut. Other than that, I think I have to put the major movements on index cards, and decide what needs to be beefed up (a lot of it, I fear), and what needs to be cut out entirely.

    Like Justine, I’m writing short at this point. My stories aren’t making it to the 50,000 word point unless I really fudge things. That said, I know there are lots of cuts to be made.

    • You know, I have always been an ‘overwriter’, and you and others might find that writing 50k words in your first draft is just your process. You are ‘writing down the bones’ and adding connective tissue and muscle and skin in the revision process. I, on the other hand, am performing liposuction. Just the way different writers’ minds work :-).

      • (-: Yeah, I’ve never been one for detail, and my writing suffers for it. People plop down in my story, and don’t know where they are. Maybe 2014 is my year to learn how to plump up my story (in a meaningful, active, moving way).

  3. I haven’t actually done a whole lot of editing since we learned to steer away from infodump and chat. To be honest, I’m really struggling with letting myself have room to get stuff down on the page in the first place. As soon as it crosses my mind that what I’m thinking about typing is chat, or infodump, or doesn’t move the story to a new place, I freeze. And I need to get past that. I’m far better at planning scenes and acts than I was, but I’m far, far worse at actually writing them.

    • You might find that time and distance will help you get away from that overly-critical editor. We learned a lot over the past year and a half, and that’s great! But we are also in hyper-critical mode right now. I had the same kind of experience at a point with my former critique group. I learned so much from them, but when I got to the point that I could almost hear different people’s voices in my head commenting on something I was about to write, I knew it was time to leave and rediscover my own voice. Hopefully your Girls will bind and gag that editor for a while and the words and ideas will flow again soon :-).

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