Wednesday, May 11, 2011

#WW - Cutting for Pace

Well, here I am in the editing stage. I finished the complete draft of the book on Sunday, and now I'm going back through, making sure I've nailed the core conflicts, layering in bits that are missing, foreshadowing and all that good stuff. Editing is grand. It makes a good story better. And then my editor gets a crack at it and makes it better still. Because that's what editors do.

I was reading a post somewhere yesterday  - and I don't remember exactly where - but the writer was saying how sometimes you go over a story so much that you can't read it with the clarity of a fresh set of eyes. I agree with this - for example in my last revisions, my biggest job was to make the hero's conflict arc more defined. I tweaked and read over and over and in the end I wasn't sure if it was as effectual as it needed to be - because I'd seen it so many times by that time that to be honest I couldn't see what bits I'd added etc. In one way that's good, because stuff doesn't leap out so hopefully it won't pull the reader out. But a fresh pair of eyes are crucial.

Right now my eyes are somewhat fresh as I go back through the story. I do not have a lot of word count wiggle room, so for every bit of layering I do I am seeking an equivalent amount of words to delete. This sounds very clinical but it's a precise thing. I am keeping my eyes open for things like repeated introspection and ideas, circular conversations that do not move the story forward, long bits of narrative that can be pared down. Deleting those bits make for a tighter, pacier story, which in turn hopefully keeps the reader turning the pages.

There was one scene in particular that I knew was troublesome. I needed my hero's reaction to a turning point - so his POV. I needed to see him making a decision to go back to the heroine and it just wasn't working. I ended up with four pages of introspection that was just...draggy. And yet bits of it had to be there.

Part of the problem was I hadn't made it hard enough on him (remember this from an earlier #WW post on being too easy on your characters, and I said I would have to go back and add in this element). And I'd introduced a conflict thread that really didn't add to the story (added it in a search for adding depth, but it didn't work). I took that thread out, layered the stronger conflict in, and then cut the scene in half - about 500 words worth. Of those deleted pages, one got completely deleted as it was superfluous. The other page ended up filtered into a later scene - which has action with the heroine.

Hopefully it strengthened the scene considerably and gave it some motion rather than being four pages of the hero "thinking about it".

Cutting for pace is important. I have a tendency to also use 2 sentences that say essentially the same thing in my MRUs (motivation reaction units). We have the action, the physical reaction and then the emotional reaction to each thing. I am finding that in my emotional reactions, I can often delete an entire sentence without affecting the meaning. If anything, the extra sentence dilutes the emotion and by making it more succinct it has more punch.

More depth does not equal more words. It may mean fewer words but more important words. Same goes for dialogue. If you are writing dialogue and you find yourself going back to something your characters have already said, you've gone in a big circle. Sometimes this is good, because when they return to the idea the reaction can be different. But often it just means you've gotten nowhere. Move it along, people. If it isn't moving things forward, delete it.

I may have rushed my ending, so I really can't afford to be wordy. I expect I will end up adding a scene - probably another 1000 words as well as layering. Seeing as I'm already at 52k, I need to be very, very careful. But it's a good thing. Deleting unnecessary words and phrases will only make for a tighter, better story.

Until next week,



  1. Donna,
    I'm so glad you posted about this b/c it is important. It's funny though, I just got feedback from a contest and every judge said one thing - I needed MORE internalizations, more scene setting, more back story." I had taken "cut for pace" so much to heart I had made my story bare and lifeless. I guess it shows you can take anything to extremes.
    I think I'm going to dig up my favorite Harlequins and see how they do it in the big leagues ;-) But I'm happy to take any advice!

  2. Jill, have a look at your MRUs. Maybe I'll do a post about this next week. Reaction units are great because that's where you can layer the senses. For example:

    "What do you think you're doing?" (this is your stimulus)

    She jumped, snatching her hand back from the cooling rack. (physical reaction) Guilt snuck down her spine as she knew the sweets were meant for the baby shower later. Then she grit her teeth as she turned and faced her mother. She was thirty years old, for Pete's sake. Not a toddler with her hand in the cookie jar. (Emotional reaction)

    Then as we move to the next stimulus, which will be her response to what's just happened, you can paint the scene. What does she see? Smell? Hear? Remember? Cutting for pace doesn't have to mean stripping things bare - just removing what "extras" is dragging the story down.

    One sentence of setting can be just as powerful (or moreso) than a whole paragraph of description. :-) And if you do add description, it helps to put it in the context of the character's reaction. Make it have meaning.

    I get very philosophical when I'm editing, can you tell?

  3. Donna - your post is timely. I'm going through the revisions now - and I'm cutting, but I wonder if I'm not cutting too much. I have alot of paragraphs that I realize are just inner monologue for things I've already shown - so if they say nothing new, out they go. But then there is the higher question - does this scene actually add to the story? Sometimes it's hard to tell - love to know how you handle that.

  4. That's a tough one Michelle and you know what? Most of the time it's instinct with me. If it feels wrong, it probably is. That's why I knew the scene I mentioned needed cutting. In last week's post I talked about how if you can't make it work, sometimes it needs the old snip.

    If there's a scene in particular that's bugging you, highlight it, cut it, paste it in a new document and then look at your story. If the story can go on without it, then you have your answer. If it feels like there's something missing, it needs to be there. You might just need to revise it.

    Sometimes the best thing you can do is leave out scenes and jump cut to the next significant action, layering in the narrative you would have used. But sometimes that doesn't work either. I did that with my ending and I suspect I'll have to go back and show some things in real time.

    But trust your story instincts. They are probably stronger than you think.

  5. Donna
    Just wanted to delurk and say thank you - I have found all your WW posts very useful. I am revising a manuscript and have just done what you suggested with a scene that was really annoying me. So I took it out. Which made me realise I do definitely need it. So I put it back in and just really thought about why and how the characters were doing and saying what they were, and suddenly I could just see how to subtly change the scene to make it work. Which it now does (I think!!)
    Thanks again
    Nina x

  6. Excellent reminders, Donna. Thank you. One thing I hear from my critique partners on a too regular basis is "why did she do that?" I know why, but I didn't put it on the page. And usually it takes one sentence to fix the problem. The urge to "write tight" sometimes goes too far.

  7. Nina, Brilliant!

    Lu, you and some of the otherse have expressed a common issue and one that I have too - and that's when things are in your head but not on the page, or when you haven't layered in ENOUGH motivation etc.

    My usual method is to finish the book and have 2-5k left for layering. The first draft is a bit dirty and it usually needs some layering for depth and emotion and the rest. It is why I leave the cutting for pace until the editing phase (and sometime I don't need to cut much at all). I always end up skimping on somethings and then having too much of others, which is why I leave it until after the story is complete so I have a picture of the story as a whole. It's much easier.

    It definitely doesn't have to be an either or kind of thing. I said yesterday in a tweet - be gone repetition and circular conversations! I need room for more IMPORTANT words. :-) The words that are there need to earn their spot.

    So topics to cover soon are MRUs and layering, yeah?

  8. Thanks, Donna. It takes so long to find those beautiful words and that delete key is so ruthless. You have some great tips. Appreciate them!

  9. "So topics to cover soon are MRUs and layering, yeah? "