Wednesday, May 04, 2011

#WW - Embrace the Knife

You're writing along and it's kind of a slog. Or you re-read a scene and realize it's flat. You write something thinking it is what needs to happen and it just doesn't work. Or you find that after "fixing" the last chapter, what you've done to the new one isn't quite right. What do you do?

Well, as the old saying goes, you can fix it. You can't fix a blank page. You can fix everything else. Here's the ugly part of that truth: sometimes fixing means hitting the delete key.

Before you curl into a ball, moaning about lost word count and hours and hard work down the drain, repeat after me: It's okay.

Sometimes, people, you need to cut away the bad stuff to get to the good. Sometimes you spend far more time trying to shoehorn a scene into doing what you want rather than cutting it and starting over.

If you look at your scene and you can figure out what's wrong, splendid, and carry on. But if after several attempts to make it better you still feel like it's not quite right, you might have to do the unspeakable. Get out the knife. If the scene is not doing its job, if it's not working and working hard to move the story along, complicate the conflict, show character and develop the romance...well, you know what you have to do.

So here's the good news. It doesn't have to be gone forever. You can save your deleted chunks to another file. This is a bit like a security blanket at first, and I do this a lot. Most of the time I do not even use the bits I deleted. But for example yesterday I deleted 10 pages - half a chapter - of my book and I know I will end up re-using probably 2-3 pages of it in a later scene. Gone doesn't have to be gone forever, unless it needs to be. And you don't need to trash it completely until you're sure.

Here's more good news. Cutting a scene that's not working can be liberating. "Finally," you can say, "I'm rid of this cumbersome scene that was tying me in knots." You're free to write it again - the way it should be written.

Cutting a bad scene means that you can cut out the "noise" that was keeping you from realizing what really needs to happen. It can mean things suddenly opening up in your story and the words flowing even better than before (which makes your lost word count lament rather pointless, because you're making it up big time). Suddenly things feel RIGHT.

Yes, this is yet again the voice of experience and it is not the first time I've had to do such a thing. I tried to make a scene work and all I did was make it worse. My CP made a suggestion that was brilliant - cut out the last 2/3 of the  scene and leave the hero hanging. Pace wise everything picked up. And the tension was amped up considerably. Things feel RIGHT and rather than skimming the surface of things trying to manufacture tension, it stayed simple and complicated and added depth. All good things.

Don't be afraid to embrace the knife. If it's a mistake, you can always add it back in. But I'll guarantee you that 9 times out of 10 you'll be glad you did.

Happy writing this week! I'm racing towards the end. What do you want to bet that next week's post will be on editing?



  1. I totally agree the knife can be our friend. I cut out an entire chapter last night during edits. It wasn't all lost though, some of the dialogue got worked in earlier and it worked really well but I'm glad I hit the delete key. The story is stronger because of it.

  2. It is scary to cut, but I’m getting braver about it. I’ve been using Scriveners and it has a great feature where you can ‘attach’ comments to a particular place in the text, or you can add ‘notes’ to a scene or chapter. This is where I stash my ‘cuts’ along with plotting and research notes. I find that reassuring and it leaves me free to cut out more without the worry of trying to find that scene in another doc.

  3. I'm not an author, but your post sounds like really good advice. When I was working, I would have to write proposals, training material, performance evaluations, etc., and I had to use the knife numerous times to get the end result I wanted. Since this is a few years ago now, I never thought to save what I was deleting for use elsewhere, just relied on my memory to put the deleted pieces in different places.


  4. Elyse - hooray and thank you for demonstrating my point! Stronger stories are good things!

    Christy - I've her good things about Scrivener. Stashing your cuts sounds like a brilliant strategy!

    Karen - thanks for stopping by. I'll tell you a secret - I never used to save what I was deleting either, until it just got too scary not to. LOL! Even now I look at those 10 pages and I really didn't save much. A few pages at most. But it was the right thing to do.

  5. Hi Donna:

    You have to use the knife in advertising too. Some of the best material may have to be cut because it gets in the way of the sale.

    Now in fiction I can often notice when there has been too much editing. The start of one book I recently read was so choppy I had no idea how it got past an editor. I asked the author about it and she said she had rewritten those fifteen pages over fifty times over the last two years. After so many times the author no longer really knows what’s still in the story and what is not. Even the CPs had read it so many times in different versions that anything that was written made sense to them.

    I think if it can’t be fixed after three to four edits, then something is wrong with its underpinning. Some authors will just start the story on Chapter 2. Now that's using a clever!


  6. I'm doing a lot of this at the moment, Donna! I keep writing a bit, think its great, sleep on it, and wake up knowing its not. Slash, burn, Slash, rewrite.
    At this rate I'll have a 'rejects' file of about 50k...

  7. I've got one submission still under consideration after revisions and I'm part way into a second story and this time around I'm so much more aware of all the rules, the advice, the tricks to follow to make the thing a better pacier all-round read. I didn't do any of this stuff with the first story and as a result the revisions were massive, I had to delete and rewrite the last third of the MS and cut a character completely. I've learned so much since then. It definitely would have saved me so much work down the line. Thanks for this post, Donna, I'm working my way through all your archive advice posts!

  8. "If you look at your scene and you can figure out what's wrong, splendid, and carry on. But if after several attempts to make it better you still feel like it's not quite right, you might have to do the unspeakable."

    For me, that really clarified a way of determining when the scene needs to go instead of torturing myself and eventually getting rid of it anyway =) Thanks for another great post.

  9. Charlotte, welcome to the blog! And woo hoo on the submission! Learning is good. It's also never-ending. :-)

    Lacey - there's great comfort in chopping but knowing you can still put it back if you need to. Glad the post helped!

    Sally - darlin', at some point you can move on. Don't get stuck on rewrititis! I tend to move forward when that happens (for example my chapters 5-7 need some work). The reason being sometimes it because clearer after I've moved ahead and figured a few more things out. I can put the trouble spots in context then and a lot of times can see what they need much better. Good luck!

    Vince - you sent a shiver of dread down my spine. I've revised things so many times I actually got sick of the story and never wanted to see it again. Thankfully by the time the books come out most of that has faded (kind of like memories of childbirth). I remember thinking I didn't even want to promote a particular story, but then I got the author copies and read it and liked it SO much better! LOL!

  10. Sally - pardon my typo. It BECOMES clearer.