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!

Do you have a book inside you?

When I was still employed full-time, and dragging myself into the office from Monday to Friday, I used to watch the television series Castle and fantasize about having that kind of life. The freedom to spend your days doing interesting research, having a group of writing buddies to play poker with (backgammon would actually be my game of choice), attending book signings and comic cons – in short, having a really fun day instead of slogging away behind a desk.

Now, slogging away earned me a pension and enough money to do much of the travel that populates my books, so it was a viable means to an end. But it was far from fulfilling. After I took early retirement, I decided it was time to try writing the book series I’d been scribbling notes about for years.

The key word here was ‘try’. I suffered from what most novice writers do: a lack of confidence. Until you’ve completed your first novel (or other form of book), you truly have no idea whether you’re capable of it. And the only way to find out is to try. It’s a bit of a Catch-22.

I’d made fits and starts for many years while still working, but I was always worried about whether I was wasting my time. And it’s difficult to really get into a book while squeezing it in after work and between things like cleaning the house.

That autumn I decided to finally jump on the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) bandwagon. The idea is to write 50,000 words of a new book between the beginning and end of November. It’s a marathon: roughly 1667 words every day for 30 days straight. But I decided a month wasn’t a huge amount of time to have devoted if it didn’t work out, and if I did complete my quota, I’d have the makings of a full novel. And I really liked the event mantra of just getting those words out of your head and onto ‘paper’, not worrying about editing or polishing it. After all, nothing else happens until you write that first draft. The freedom to just write, good or bad, broke through that fear wall I’d been standing on one side of. If I decided it was garbage afterwards, I didn’t have to show it to anyone. And if it was pretty good, well then…

There are hundreds of writing groups that convene, loosely speaking, during NaNoWriMo, for any writing theme or type of writer. There’s also a very active Forum where people toss ideas around, ask questions, or pass the time. What surprised me the most about some of the comments was the number of people who signed up for the writing sprint without any idea of a book to start with.

For me, everything starts with that nugget of an idea. You flesh it out into a story, nurse it along, sweat over it, and hopefully produce something you can work with. But there has to be that idea, that ‘hmm, what if this happened?’ concept.

It’s said there are only seven basic plots, and each of these has been told again and again and again, in different variations. What fascinates me is how many great writers find ways to put a different spin on a time-honoured plot.

So you have your nugget. How do you turn that into a full-fledged novel?

All stories consist of several essential components:

  1. Your protagonist – the heroine/hero of your story. They must be a fully-developed person (or other creature): strengths, weaknesses, faults. You must know them inside-out – where they came from, what influenced their lives, what they think, how they’ll react in the situations you’re going to put them in. Well, mostly; it’s fun when they surprise you on occasion.
  2. The “Inciting Incident”. This is the change in your protagonist’s life that sets her/him/them on the path taken in the novel. Maybe it’s a vengeance plot, or a romance, or a quest for a magic sword. And because of this important incident, the protagonist then has:
  3. A strong goal. This goal drives the protagonist forward to the climax of the plot.
  4. Antagonist(s). There will be people (or creatures) that get in the way of achieving that goal. They may want to prevent the heroine from achieving her goal for reasons of their own, or they may want to harm the heroine, or they’re just inimical to the heroine’s existence. Whatever the case, the antagonist must be strong enough as a character to keep the ultimate outcome unpredictable (unless the book is a romance, where the outcome is fairly obvious but the journey to get there is the interesting part).
  5. Challenges. These are the ups and downs of the protagonist’s journey that form the plot.
  6. All of the challenges build until the blockbuster climax of the story. If you’ve done your work well, the climax resonates with your readers on many levels.
  7. The denouement, where everything wraps up and ties up – unless you’re writing a multi-book series, in which case everything doesn’t tie up, and this section leaves some intriguing questions in your readers’ minds that will make them pant for the next book.

Some authors advocate writing backwards – that is, knowing what the ending of the book is going to be, and then filling in the protagonist’s journey to bring her/him/them to that conclusion. That is the plotting method I used, not on purpose really, but I already knew where my heroine had to end up at the close of each of the first two books in my series in order for her to face the situations she has to face in the final book.

There was a lot of work to get her through the first book. Although my books are a mix of urban fantasy and science fiction, I incorporate real places in the world (although I tweak them a fair bit) and real history (tweaked also 😊). I conducted a great deal of research to get the feel and the details right, to create a level of authenticity in my readers’ minds that would give them the sense that my story might actually have taken place, somewhere in another layer of our world that isn’t seen by most people.

I have files on all my main characters – their backgrounds, where they live, their wardrobes even. I have a fictional town that I’ve mapped out in considerable detail, and a fictional college that lives in full colour in my head.

There’s a lot more that goes into creating a book than will fit into a single blog post, but you can see why I was amazed at people who start the November challenge without even an idea. I think you could bang out a quick book in 30 days, but it would be very superficial, or very short. My favourite kind of book is full of layers and adventure, so that’s what I strived to write. According to my beta readers (my recruits who very kindly volunteered their time to read the second draft and critique it), I succeeded. Now I’m working on the final edit and plan to publish later this year.

That’s been my journey so far. If you have an idea for a book that just won’t leave you alone – that keeps pushing at you enough that you’re frequently jotting notes for a scene, or a plot twist, or a conversation – and you’re willing to see what you can do with it, maybe there’s a complete book somewhere inside you just waiting to see the light of the computer page.