Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Technical Topics -- The Scalpel Approach

Somebody asked:

But what about the wonderful scene in Chapter One. 
I know it's backstory,
but it's really good. "

(I'm kinda parphrasing what was said here.  He had lots more excuses, for one thing.)

 This giraffe is really great backstory put into Chapter One.  I mean, as a visual concept.

What I said:

I, too, hate to discard good writing.

Lookit here.

See Joanna discard good writing.  See Joanna suffer.
Sometime there's a scene you have to write and you can't use because it don't fit in the action of the book.
Live with it.

We don't add scenes because they are interesting, beautiful and cool. We set scenes in place because their action, tone, pacing, emotional content, and movement through the character arc


If the reader has to edge his way around a kitchen sink in the front hall, we take the sink out. It doesn't matter that it's a beautiful kitchen sink.

Be ruthless. Does that scene drive the narrative forward . . . or slow it to a grinding halt?

Which is all very fine and philosophical, but how do we actually DO this?

1) Finish Draft One.

2) Set the ms in front of you and take out a sharp knife.

3) You are going to cut out everything that is not essential to the action.
If you remove a scene and the story still works, it is not an essential scene.

Especially take out
dream sequences,
old men reciting prophesy,
descriptions of sunrise over the steppes,
scenes of somebody thinking about things,
talking heads explaining what somebody's grandfather did.

4) You now have two piles
(a) the working action of the manuscript, and
(b) literary kudzu.

This is where you can indulge yourself.
You get to take an amount of kudzu no greater than 5% of the total mass of the ms and fold it back in.

This is a WeightWatchers indulging of oneself --
i.e. you get a piece of chocolate cake the size of a postage stamp --
but it is better than nothing at all.

5) Reread this new, sleek Draft One. It's better, isn't it?


  1. Anonymous10:58 AM


    I LOVE your description of "literary kudzu." Though I confess to enjoying reading about prophecies and what one's grandfather did, and I don't recall needing any description of sunsets on the steppes.
    What I tire of quickly are loooong conversations; I want people to shut up and drink tea, or chase someone, or start kissing.
    I like your proportion of kudzu to plot necessities.
    Sometimes distance, in time and space, helps one fall out of love with less than vital sentences.

  2. This is great wisdom.

    I always end up writing a lot of scenes that I know won't make the final cut (for example, I am compelled to write scenes from each major character's childhood) and some that I suspect won't. Quite often I love them and think they're brilliant (better in fact than the ones that actually fit into the story).

    I always tell myself that they made me get to know the characters or the story better and therefore indirectly contributed to making the ms better. I also tend to think I can publish them on my blog as outtakes or bonus scenes and use them anyway. Likely I wouldn't, though. Likely I would just sit there and admire them, safe because no one will ever see them and tell me they're not as brilliant as I think. ;)

  3. Hi Franzeca --

    Around here the kudzu grows so fast you can see a noticeable difference in it between the morning commute and the afternoon drive home.

    There's a company that rents out goats to deal with this. I think maybe the road commission uses them.

    The good solution would be to let tough little goats run wild, eating the kudzu off the wild spaces. But, of course, if we DID have wild goats they would pass the kudzu by and jump over fences and travel long dangerous miles to come to my mailbox and eat my hibiscus down to the ground chomp chomp.

    I know they would do this because that is what the deer do.

  4. I swear I already uploaded the kudzu comment, but for some reason it didn't 'take'.

  5. Hi Felicia --

    Oh. Please DO post out-takes on your blog. I love to read them. It's . . . I dunnoh . . . it's like seeing what's beyond the edges of the story somehow.

    I have a writer friend who says she has to write out the backstory before she can settle down and write the WIP. I guess it's a warmup for her.
    Anyhow, she has to get it out of the way before she can do a proper job.

    I 'see' lots of this backstory, but I don't have to write it out, (Thank Goodness.)

  6. Ouch. This is all very wise and very, very painful.

    Bless you for permitting 5% back in. (Yes, it is like Weight Watchers. I find when I'm trimming, I start to get kind of anorectic about it, mumbling things like "got rid of another 500 words...maybe I can cut another 20 on this page...yes, yes, I am powerful, so much more powerful than those users-of-adverbs, hee hee hee" until even the dog starts edging away.
    And then eventually I have to go back in and add a little because it's gotten too damn skinny. Sigh.)

  7. Hi Elisa --

    You HAVE to bung that 5% back into the manuscript
    because, very often, that's the best stuff you'll write.

    Just because a scene or a paragraph doesn't serve any story purpose doesn't make it bad writing. Freed from the necessity of performing any meaningful work, these segments often assume the decadent grace of aristocrats of the Old Order. Their manners are faultless, their clothing colorful, their bon mots delightful.

    It's a pity we must scoot these passages out the door because they are so very useless.