Saturday, April 2, 2011

Tip: Cutting


It's a word that strikes fear into the heart of writers.  A nameless fear, named cutting.

Cutting is probably our least favorite thing to do, as writers. After all, we write--which basically implies an increase of words.  Not a decrease.

Most of us really, really don't like cutting.  I sure don't.  A writer's pride is his or her word count: I say, "How's the novel coming?" You say, "Good, I wrote a couple thousand words yesterday."  And yet, to take away words from a novel is almost a horrific thing.  The whole goal of writing a novel seems to be in danger.

Instinctively, I suspect most of us shy away from cutting.  "It's for long-winded writers," we say.  Most beginning writers start out with humble words counts, right?  Why would we decrease these already meager amounts? (No offense to anyone.)

And yet, sometimes it's needed.

"What, Jake?" you say.  "I can barely keep my word count up.  I need to expand, not cut!"

That may be true, but nonetheless there are times where it is needed.  Generally, writers cut for one of three reasons (if not a combination of any of them).

First, because the scene is useless.  Why would you write a scene about little purple butterflies doing a interpretive dance around a blossoming tree when your character is drowning in an underground pool?  This example is a little extreme, but you see what I mean.  Some scenes are simply not needed.  Sometimes they are there to increase your word count, and they don't actually add anything to the novel.

For instance (a slightly more relevant example), you may write a scene about your character talking to a man about the protests going on in a different city.  While the information may be interesting, and world-building, unless it is relevant to the plot and affects it in some way, the scene isn't needed.  If it introduces some information, however, that is needed later in the novel (or even in a sequel), the scene is fine.  If the scene in which the character is told/shown the information is lengthy, you may want to consider introducing it in a shorter scene.

The second reason writers usually cut is because the scene isn't relevant to the situation, for whatever reason.
 In my novel Revolution, I wrote half of chapter three in a word war on Facebook.  However, since I didn't have much time to think about it, I wrote it in Tevas' POV.  [Tevas is one of my important characters].  However, this character is meant to have the "mysterious and seemingly all-knowing" feel.  Writing in his POV makes creating this aura much harder.  And besides, the writing in this case wasn't that good, either. ;)

So I cut it.  Instead of describing all that the character did, I implied that he did it, and then moved on to another POV.  The scene wasn't relevant to what I wanted to do--the situation and the characters made it necessary to cut that scene and find a different way to do it.  Another example may be certain scenes' placement.  Does this scene increase or decrease the tension from the last one?  Is it really needed to increase the tension, or should I cut it to keep the scene sharp?  Usually, writing an intense battle scene with high stakes and then heading off to a peaceful scene in a green field (with lots of fluffy sheep!) is not a good way to write.

And sometimes writers cut for the third reason: bad writing.

Sometimes the only thing to do when a scene is dragging and your hands are heavy is to push the delete button and start over.  Make the plot go a different way.  In Sadaar, I had a large chunk I was supposed to write where the characters travel.  Traveling scenes are usually a writer's graveyard.  And the writing was not going well--due to the content I was writing, the quality of my writing took a fell swoop downward.  So I cut a bit and added in a string of plot that wasn't there before to lighten it up.  Not only did this cutting result in an increase of word count, I added a more interesting element to an otherwise boring scene.

So remember: uselessness, irrelevance, and dragging writing are the three main reasons a writer may cut.

Do you have any other reasons you usually cut?  Shoot me a comment. :)


whisper said...

In the words of William Faulkner, "In writing, you must kill your darlings." I suppose that often the bits of writing which we are most subconsciously proud of are actually the bad ones that ought to go. I know this can be true for me... sometimes I'm too emotionally attached to a scene or a character or a line to see the obvious: that it has sadly fallen behind the times and is unnecessary in my story and is actually not all that great a bit of writing anyway.

Anywho, that's just what came to mind while I read this post (which was, as usual, excellent).

Two cents,

Eldra said...

Cutting is most definitely not the enjoyable part of writing, but unfortunately it has to be done. Unless you're having issues with your plot, though, it's best to leave cutting until you begin the revision process, otherwise you may never continue on with the actual plot. At least, that's what I've discovered.

And this line had me giggling: A nameless fear, named cutting. Where do you get your sense of humor, Jake? It never fails to make me laugh.

Star-Dreamer said...

I'm working on a rewrite for SOTD and in the newer version I've cut several characters out in favor of other characters that were, at first, considered minor, but that now I've discovered are a whole lot more interesting. At first I wasn't sure I would like the results (and how on earth would I get this new character to do what the old character had done... but do it even BETTER?) But after I started to write, I realized that I should never have worried. Cutting characters is often hard, but sometimes it is so worth it. I can't wait to finish this rewrite now! You guys will be in for quite the adventure! :D

Marian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marian said...

Bad writing...that would be me. :P Cutting it doesn't make me feel too bad.

Another reason, connected to irrelevance, is when you change a character's personality or motives. In my current novel, Chapter 1 was practically an introduction/pity-party for the main character. :P It just wasn't working, and I didn't want my main character to be so pathetic, so I decided to change their personality and cut that chapter.

Jake said...

Thank you! Indeed, I too become attached to certain writings that I know must go. I liked how this scene was worded--I wanted this character to say this--but it must go nonetheless. :)

Yes, most of the time. :) However, I did cut while writing in this instance--the chapter would have required a longer follow-up-what-just-happened and it eliminated the mysteriousness of that character. So I cut! :) Actually, that line was taken from Andrew Peterson's books. The actual quote is, "That fear was a nameless fear, a nameless fear named Gnag the Nameless." Andrew Peterson is amazing. XD

Indeed! It may hurt for a bit--cutting, that is--but it works for the better of the novel.

Never want a pity party. It rarely helps. ;) Oftentimes, yes, if a character or place changes--outside of the natural cycle of the novel (i.e. the character grows stronger after training)--it is best to cut all places where the 'old' character or place remained. There, you may consider rewriting the scenes.

Elizabeth Dresdow said...

I have a really hard time with cutting and rewriting. A lot of the time I don't want to cut because I really like that scene even though it doesn't have anything to do with that part or the story or whatever. If that is the case, I will save that scene, dialogue, etc, somewhere else and maybe use it again, maybe not, depending. But thanks for these tips! They are deff useful! :D

Gillian Adams said...

Ah cutting - a necessary evil for the good of a novel! My novel, unfortunately, is too long for a y/a fantasy. It's almost finished at 110,000 words - so it'll probably be 115,000 before it's done. Which means that I'll have to go back and cut out a lot.

I already know a lot of what I'm going to edit out - mostly scenes written during NANOWRIMO when I was desperately trying to increase the wordcount! haha. :) I'm not really looking forward to it though...

Jake said...

No problem! I sometimes do that, but not often. :) I do, however, keep 'drafts' of different stages of my novels that are unedited/edited/revised, etc.

Indeed! NaNoWriMo tends to do that. ;) I know I may have to cut some things in The Book of Shaldu (the entirety of which was written during NaNo), because it's NANO. That's what we do. :P