Cutting Deep

Posted: April 28, 2017 in Writing
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Sometimes, the advice you get from your beta readers or critique partners just feels right.  Not always!  If you’re like me, or even newer at this game, you meet most advice from critics with a blank stare. “How dare they suggest I change that word? Don’t they know how long I agonized over it?”  It gets worse when they give more sweeping advice, like changing a character or adding an emotion.  Calls to cut out entire scenes? Forget it.

But eventually, your skin thickens and your reticence declines as you loosen your death grip on your manuscript, and you begin to actually see the merit in some of these suggestions.  And you dip your toe into a revision and discover that the change really did make that scene better.

I’m dancing with a new group of CP’s right now, and there appears to be some consensus on this new revision of mine that the “good stuff” doesn’t really begin until the end of chapter three. Well, yes I knew that, but it had to be that way, because reasons. Plus, can’t you see how much I have obviously agonized over those first chapters, shoe-horning in extra motivation and tension and foreshadowing? It’s flipping brilliant is what it is, and you’ll all agree just as soon as you get the end of the book.  You’ll see.  And then I’ll say I told you so.

Only this time, one of the readers said something nobody else has actually said before. “You should cut everything else and just start at the end of chapter three.”

The really funny thing about that was how I didn’t clench up. In fact, I started feverishly making notes. I found a use for those fancy Moleskine notebooks I bought.  I plotted and rearranged and made lists, and at the end of my frenzy I saw a way.  I am going to cut the first three chapters — some 40 pages — down to about 16. And I’ll have to add a page or so back in later, to introduce a character who’s original intro scene is being cut.  But I can do it.

This is a deep cut.  Because I now can see how I’ve been shoring up this house of cards from the very beginning. I needed an excuse for my MC to sneak into the garage and find a diary. So I had Mom get mad at her for being immature and take away her beloved books. But I needed a reason for Mom to get mad, so I invented a whole scene were the MC’s little brother runs away while she’s babysitting.  But then I needed a scene showing the MC trying to deal with Mom’s anger and failing.  So I added a scene with her best friend giving advice. And all of this is now replaced by simply having someone give the the diary to the MC.  Now all of the rest of that is utterly unnecessary.  Sure, there are a million threads suddenly flopping in the breeze, but I can tie most of them up pretty quickly, to later scenes, or by yanking them out altogether.

It’s good.  It’s working.  And when I’m done, I’ll have a mean, lean opening, where we get to the “good stuff” right away.

And that’s what we all want, isn’t it?

  1. The detailed constructive critiques are like Death with a Thousand Paper Cuts to a writer but they’re infinitely better than the ones you get that are “It was good” or “Something is wrong with it but I don’t know what.” Like, really? That’s all ya got? I KNOW I’m good/I know something might possibly be wrong with it but what else? God love the well-intentioned beta readers but give me the critics, even if they hurt me. Good on you John for taking the advice! That’s half the battle right there 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. anovelattitude says:

    Beta readers and critics are not all created equal; the merit of their advice depends heavily on their professional experience, their connections to the subject material, and their relationships to you. It sounds like you got one who had a solid point to make.


  3. Sometimes it takes us a while to work up to what we’re really writing about, and the first few chapters are prep that kid readers aren’t going to want to wade through. It’s probably always worth asking ourselves the question, “How many of these early pages can I chop off without really losing much? Would I be better off starting later and backfilling this info?”

    And when we can’t see it, sometimes a beta reader or editor can.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rick Ellrod says:

    lol . . . Enjoyed your account of the cascading motivations. Too true. Sometimes you have to work through the complex solutions to find the simple one . . .

    Liked by 1 person

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