Cut/Snip/Tweak

I’ve always admired great editing in films, when the timing, pace and impact of a scene create something truly memorable.

There’s so much that goes into a scene, whether it’s on a screen or a page. Even though the director or novelist have something planned out to take the plot from introduction to finale, everything that first emerges is what Hollywood calls ‘raw footage’. Sometimes (often for me) inspiration strikes along the way and takes the plot in a direction that wasn’t exactly in the original plan.

I think of it rather like a brain dump. As I’m writing a scene, I’m watching it play out in my imagination and transcribing it onto my electronic page as best I can so that my eventual readers will see it the same way in their imagination. That means I have to:

  • portray the setting well enough to make it vivid but not bog my readers down in extraneous details
  • describe the characters as neatly as possible
  • let them act authentically, even if that means changing how I first saw the scene playing out
  • make the action memorable and important to the plot – even though my reader may not see exactly where it’s going, or whether it might be a clue, a red herring or the buildup to a twist
  • not stretch the rubber bands of credulity and tension too far
  • stop the scene at the best point: not so short that it doesn’t flow, or so long that it dribbles off ineffectively

But some of that can be tweaked in the editing phase. I’m not sure how other writers do it, but while I’m writing the first draft I describe everything in great detail so that I can see it play out fully. Making the scene better – tighter, more impactful – comes in the edit, where I might trim it, restructure it, move it in the plot, or perhaps even decide that I want to discard it altogether.

To date, having finished two of the three books in my series, I haven’t discarded an entire scene. As I write, I’m very much aware of making sure everything has a point.

In the editing phases, I look for things that should be cut. I’m also a very visual writer, so it’s important to me that my words paint pictures well.

Every scene has a mood – optimistic, ominous, edgy, suspenseful, comforting, romantic, mouth-watering… Every character has their own nuances – the way they look, move, speak, react.

And then there’s the entire book all assembled, carrying the characters from first impression to a finale that resonates, stuns, answers questions or asks more.

I follow the standard guideline to put the first draft aside for a while once you’ve finished it, then return to it after a month or so and re-read it with fresher eyes.

After celebrating the official keyboarding of “The End” on my first novel with glasses of champagne, I tried to ignore the manuscript, to not even muddle it around in my head for several weeks. It wasn’t easy. Finally, it was time to dive into the edit with eyes wide open. Some of it impressed me – great turns of phrase that had sprung spontaneously out of my head. Other parts I looked at as critically as possible.

The next phase was to give it to my crew of beta readers. As much as I needed to know what was wrong with the book – what wasn’t working in their minds – what I needed even more was to know if they even liked the thing.

You have a tale that’s been living in your head for years, and you think it’s pretty cool, but others might think it’s awful, or boring. So you nervously place your baby into their hands and wait for feedback.

I did a fair bit of research on what to ask beta readers to look for and comment on. I gave them a one-month timeline, although a couple of them took a bit longer. My hubby read it first, and, despite it not being his preferred genre, liked it so much that he finished it in a week. Then, as I apprehensively opened each successive ‘book report’, I realized that I had a viable story.

My beta readers gave me a wide variety of opinions. They were a perfect cross-section of people that might pick up my book in a store or online, and their comments were really interesting. A lot of commonalities, a few illuminating disparities.

All of them said they’d definitely want to read Book 2 and 3 to find out what happens. Hallelujah! They’re all waiting eagerly for Book 2, which is having a rest on my external drive while I go back and do the final edit of Book 1.

This edit is the big one, the one that readers in the wider world will see, hopefully like enough to buy, and then fall in love with enough to recommend to all their friends. This is where I’m scrutinizing for grammatical errors and, like an overgrown garden, trimming away weak, weedy leaves to let the flowers and healthy leaves shine. I’m also propagating the shoots of next year’s garden and making sure there’s continuity from one season to the next (one of the reasons I wanted to complete Book 2 before doing the final edit of Book 1).

My family and friends are pumped for publication and the launch party. I’ll be nervous, but also relishing the fact that I finally achieved a long-time dream. So wish me luck, and I’ll keep you posted on the progress!

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