Monday, January 3, 2011

Cleaning up carnage from a manuscript massacre

The last few days have been a bloodbath in my office.

Adverbs were slashed with disturbing brutality. Paragraphs dropped like wounded wildebeests in sticky puddles of their own intestines. Entire chapters lay twitching on the floor, gasping for breath.

I cut nearly 4,000 words from LET IT BREATHE on Saturday, and maybe 2,000 more the day before.

For a writer at any career stage, it sucks reading something you’ve written – perhaps remembering the precise, cheerful moment you put those words on the page –and knowing those hours would have been better spent cleaning your dog’s toenails with a toothbrush.

We’ve talked before about tweaking and retooling slashed scenes, but that’s not what I mean here. I’m talking about the scenes you know in your heart need to die.

And while it stings sometimes, there’s a certain power in it.

In some of my earliest forays into fiction writing, I’d get a niggling notion something wasn’t right in a manuscript. I could never put my finger on what it was, but something was just off.

I’ve heard authors complain about editors and agents who give elusive reasons for rejection, but I totally get it. Sometimes you can’t pinpoint the problem or how to fix it – you just know something isn’t right.

That’s why it’s so empowering to read something I’ve written and to proudly declare, THIS SUCKS…but I know how to make it suck less.

Once upon a time, I assumed there’d be a day when my manuscripts would come out perfect on the first try. Sure, there’d be a few tweaks for typos, but no more heaving entire chapters into the dumpster. I looked forward to that day. I pined for it.

With eight years of fiction writing and a three-book deal under my belt, I can tell you for sure that day will never come.

I’m OK with that.

Because while cutting can be painful, there are few more exhilarating experiences than deleting words with one hand while the other is types words you know for certain should replace them.

Do you recognize when you suck? Can you relate to the euphoria of knowing exactly how to make yourself suck less? Please share.

I have to stop the dog from rolling in that puddle of manuscript brains.


Sarah W said...

There's this scene. . . it shows the working partnership and trust between two characters. It shows (I hope) how one of them can scam anyone into almost anything off the cuff, but has trouble with personal honesty, and how the other one can bring down a raging drunk with a toothpick, but is reluctant to make decisions involving the welfare of other people.

And I have to cut it because it's delaying the plot. The story will be better without it. Cue cussing and gnashing of teeth.

But I'm going to let it sit there on death row until I'm done with the rest. Maybe I can cannibalise it . . .

Linda G. said...

Eeew. Gross. But, boy, can I relate!

I keep an "Outtakes" file, since I can't bear to totally delete complete scenes. It's like using anesthetic when I'm amputating the stuff that has to go.

Matthew MacNish said...

I most certainly do not always recognize when I suck, but I am willing and able to admit that I know it happens. Sometimes I just need a little help from crit partners to pin down the passages that stink.

I think you put it very well here, at first I was convinced that everything I wrote was worthwhile, and then I was terrified of having to throw away "good writing", but I've finally realized how liberating it can be when you get a chance to see how much better your story can be when truly trimmed down to only what is needed.

Danica Avet said...

I actually experienced this same feeling over the weekend. I had revisions to make for my agent and one of the things she talked about was the ending of my manuscript. I thought the scene, as I wrote it, was hilarious and fantastical and brilliant. It was only after talking with her that I realized I might've gone a little too far (okay a lot too far). I fixed it felt better, like I wasn't pushing too hard, but just enough to get my point across.

It's a wonderful feeling!

Jessica Lemmon said...

YES! I picked up a rejected MS from last March and began tinkering it. And, I was shocked to find out - I DO SUCK! YAYYYY! It actually thrilled me that I could see so obviously what was completely eluding me the first time around. I continue to be grateful that I didn't go the self-pub route that a few dear friends suggested. After all, I want not only to be pubbed, but to write something GOOD!

Here's to SUCKING!

Anne Gallagher said...

I can only see when I suck after I've been away from it for a long time. And that's a good thing.

So as Jessica says, "YAY FOR SUCKING!!"

Vicki Tremper said...

I can relate. I remember how happy I was to finish the draft of a new YA a year ago. Then I spent almost a year on a different project. Now I see how much work I still have to do. Entire scenes will be cut, rewritten or moved. I may even rewrite the whole middle. Ack!

But it helps to see I'm not alone. ;-)

Eleven Eleven said...

Oh, yes. It's not so much that I've cut entire scenes, but I did go through a manuscript last summer and chop over 30 thousand words, one sentence at a time (I am a verbose first-drafter). It was absolutely thrilling, like donning magical surgerical glasses and then removing cancerous growths without killing the patient.

I bet if I came back and looked at this comment in three days, I could trim it back 30%, too.

Bryan Russell said...

Hey, I once cut 120,000 words from a manuscript. I know carnage.

Roni Loren said...

I definitely get that vague, something isn't working feeling a lot. Used to get it with boyfriends, too. :)

And you're right, nothing's better than those fix-the-suck epiphanies, lol. I need one of those RIGHT NOW.

Kadi Easley said...

I have what I call lazy writer syndrome. When LWS strikes, I'll read something in one of my MSS's that strikes me a little off, but instead of stopping to fix it, I only slow down for a sec, then rush past thinking to myself, it's really okay. I'm just being picky. Invariably, those are the scenes where my editors red pen looks like it exploded onto the page. I could save myself a lot of headaches if I could find a cure for LWS and just fix the dumb stuff as I find it.

demery said...

Still working on being able to locate the suckitude... critique buddies are helping with this (as painful as that process is). Now working up the courage to start slashing. The FEAR looms that when I'm done slashing nothing will be left... Love your encouragement about how good it feels to cut out what doesn't work and add in what does!! You're letting your ms breathe!! Happy New Year :)

Unknown said...

Ah, slash and burn sessions. I'm due for one. I usually follow the carnage with wine and the rebuild with a celebration. Good luck with yours.

Unknown said...

I can often identify that something sucks in my writing, but unlike you this fact isn't enough for me. I hate when I can't identify how to fix it, and the frustration almost has me ripping my hair out. I want to make it work yesterday.

I think I should print a sign to have on my computer. It'll say:


And it'll have a police woman aiming her gun at me. A hot police woman, preferably. That should take my mind off things. :D

lora96 said...


Usually not until I reread it, but I certainly recognize the daring whoosh of dreadfulness when I see it.

Rereading a draft recently I was in the middle of a dreadful, limping scene when I saw that I had stopped midsentence and typed the words THIS MUST GO AWAY to remind myself to delete the scene :)

Rebecca T. said...

Usually I notice that something completely stinks just after I've e-mailed it or, better yet, posted it as a blogfest entry. My eyes skim over it and I go pale and mutter "what was I thinking" and go back in to add an apologetic disclaimer. :)

Mark SImpson said...

Having not written much for years until recently, I feel I am still in the steep section of the suck/doesn't suck curve. The more I write the better it seems to get, but the version I am currently working on barely resembles what I had originally written.

My first thought when I re-read a section and can clearly see it need revision is, "Wow. I'm glad I caught that before someone else did."

I'm sure when it all reaches my own standards of awesomeness editors will still find much to amend, but my own slash and burn sessions are becoming standard procedure.

It makes progress slow, though, when I'm slashing as much as I'm adding.

Jason said...

You know, I actually realize the suckiness as I do it. Happened to me last night. I wrote a scene and it totally was not turning out the way I wanted it to. It was too slow, too stagnant. But I kept going. why? Because I knew I wouldn't be able to rewrite it the right way unless I finished what I was doing.

The good part there is I now have a basis to re-work it from.

The bad part is my realization on how to fix it and it's going to involved re-writing the whole damn thing.

And I'm actually excited about that. Better I decide it sucks and figure out how to fix it, then to think it's fine and have someone else tell me it sucks. :)

Here's a question though: Should I stop my drafting to re-do the scene? Or should I just make a couple quick notes in the text of the MS so I remember what I was thinking in a month? I'm torn on which way to go tonight. Would love to hear other writer's opinions.

And if I didn't exactly say, I love the fact I see the suckiness. It feels so good to fix it, re-read, and think, yep, that's exactly what I want it to say.

Unknown said...

OOOOOH YEAH!!!!! All the time!

I get to one scene that I really like, but I know it has to go, or I have a really good idea for a scene I want to write that will be something funny to put the characters through and by the time I get around to writing that scene, it no longer fits in with the context of where the novel has headed!

Very frustrating.

B. A. Binns said...

I too go through the hate it/love it cycle. I am not a writer, I keep reminding myself, I'm a fixer.

I write, then slash and burn, and then write again. I no longer count the number of edits (actual rewrites sometimes) and just smile when people asked me how many times I edited my first book.

The book I'm working on now was 55,000 words, then was slashed to 38,000, then written back up to 45,000, slashed to 40,000 and now lies at 49,000 - and those are 49,000 better words than the original. I hate having this as my process, but I keep telling myself there's a good story buried inside that mess, I just have to dig it out and polish it up. The technique, hard as it is on me, worked for my first book, so here's hoping the same will happen now.

Nice to know I'm not alone in loving and hating my sometimes sucky, but eventually darn good, writing.


Sarah, I always cannibalize when I can, but sometimes straight-up murder is the only solution.

Linda G, I shudder to think of anyone seeing some of my deleted scenes.

Matthew, I always hate knowing something isn't working, but having no idea how to fix it. I think that's why it's so empowering to have a solution...even if the solution involves heavy application of the delete key.

Danica, I've rewritten more than my fair share of endings :)

Jessica, good for you!

Anne, distance from a manuscript is one of the best things you can give yourself!

Vicki, most of my slashing happened around the 2/3 mark. That's always where I go astray.

Eleven Eleven, good for you having the guts (and the know-how) to cut 30k words!

Bryan, holy crap! That must have been one long manuscript!

Roni, great analogy! "It's just not for me" applies in so many situations.

KD Easley, one of my CPs has the same disease :)

Demery, good CPs are worth their weight in good wine for their ability to spot suckitude.

Jeannie, the slash sessions can be surprisingly liberating, can't they?

Malin, you'll have to tell me if you make such a poster!

lora96, ah yes, I've had many of those occasions where I recognize the suck as it's happening.

Rebecca, nothing worse than the post-send suck recognition!

Mark, there will definitely be days you delete a lot more words than you write :)

Jason, there are different schools of thought on that. One of my critique partners and I are both edit-as-we-go girls. One of my other critique partners just wrote an entire manuscript where she didn't read a single word of it until the end. She found it to be a really interesting exercise.

Matthew AT Banning, author Lucy March (aka Lani Diane Rich) recently did a blog post about vestigial tails (relating them to dead scenes in manuscripts, or things that linger even after there's no use for them. Very enlightening.

B.A. Binns, it's always terrifying to see word counts fluctuate like that, isn't it?

Thanks for reading, guys!

Unknown said...

I've made the poster (I REALLY needed it last night) and have it as my computer background, but the pic is stolen from google picture search, so I think I'm not allowed to share it online. I can email it though, if you want a laugh :)