“Every gambler knows/that the secret to surviving/is knowing what to throw away/and knowing what to keep . . .” – Kenny Rogers, ‘The Gambler’
This is a line from Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler.” The song is about a young gambler who meets up with an old gambler, who gives him some sage advice about life before dying on the train bound for nowhere. A very cheery song.
But, just as the young gambler ‘found an ace that I could keep’ in that advice, maybe we can, too.
As writers, we also have to know what to throw away and what to keep. Rewrites abound with these choices. We’ve all read books – especially debut novels – where we think hmm, couldn’t that line or paragraph or entire chapter have been cut without doing anything to the book? And in truth, we’re probably right.
Of course, when it’s you in the writer’s seat, and it’s your baby you’r taking a red pen to, those choices are much harder to make! Once someone – a beta reader, perhaps – suggests, ever so gently, that perhaps this paragraph could be cut because . . . we tend to instantly launch into defense mode. Truthfully? We know they’re probably right. But admitting that is so hard!
It’s really hard to know what to throw away. I’ve been working on that dratted middle part of my novel for the past week, rearranging scenes, editing others for tension and pace, and yes, cutting some entirely.
Oooh. Yeah. I hear the gasps. What do you mean, you cut? Lines? Oh, my goodness. How could you do that? Wait. You cut – gasp! – scenes? (Horrified silence that drags out . . .)
Yup. Scenes. Entire ones.
How do you know if things need to be cut? Well, if you’re like me, you spend 9 years – off and on – making small edits and revisions and hearing a little voice inside telling you that something’s Not Quite Right, but being unwilling to make the hard choices because that will mean Armageddon.
Let’s think about that little voice for a second.
We are writers. We are readers. At least, we’d better be. We know when something feels ‘off.’ We may not be able to pinpoint precisely what that is, but we know it, deep down. There’s a little hesitation when we read certain paragraphs. We gloss over some sentences, unwilling to look them in the eye. We frown over the transitions from one scene to another, or one chapter to another. We scrunch up our faces at character motives and don’t even get me started on how much we dread reading some dialogue! That’s the little voice writers have. It doesn’t magically appear. It’s developed over time, as we write, edit, read, write, edit, read, write . . . We get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, what our voice sounds like, when we’re imitating others.
In short, listen to the freaking little voice. You may not know what’s going on exactly, but stick a Post-It note on that page anyway. Put a frowny face on it. Just remind yourself that Here Be Something To Work On. Because that little voice? It’s there for a reason. It’s there to tell you how to make your novel better.
Another thing to keep in mind is the issue I’m having right now: scenes that no longer fit. What do you do when you’ve revised and edited, and suddenly that pivotal scene in the middle, the one that once changed the entire thing for your characters, isn’t needed anymore? This is what I did to myself. I had a scene that – okay, let’s be honest. I knew it didn’t work. I knew it was out of character for my MC, Erin, and I knew my other MC, Kai, would never ever in a million years NEVER let her do that. But it didn’t matter. I couldn’t let it go.
And then I made some major changes earlier in the novel, and that scene is now . . . not necessary. So I cut it from the new draft. It just never got copied and pasted over. I’m still wrestling with whether this is good or not!
But. Here’s the thing: if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t belong in your novel.
For a long time I considered this scene sacred, integral to the novel (yes, despite my misgivings about it!). But here’s a sad fact: if the scene doesn’t go in, it won’t matter. Seriously. It won’t matter to the novel at all.
(At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I’m not entirely convinced.)
There are other reasons to jettison paragraphs or entire scenes. One is simply that it doesn’t move the story forward. It might be pretty. It might be some of the best writing you’ve ever done. Does it add to the story in any meaningful way? Does it provide for character development, plot twists, new information? If not – let it go. Or, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch put it,
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (On the Art of Writing, 1916).
Or, if you prefer the great Stephen King:
“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)” (On Writing)
Or, you’d rather, Kurt Vonnegut:
“Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” — (How to Use the Power of the Printed Word)
(And please remember: just because you don’t use it in THIS novel doesn’t mean you can’t rework it for another one! Nothing we write is every truly gone. Plus, your future readers will never know it used to be there. All they’ll notice is the nice, tight pacing, the flow from one scene to the next, the rapid plot development.)
Another reason is parallel to the one I mentioned above – after you’ve revised, you suddenly have a scene that just doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe your character’s motivations have changed. Maybe you’ve added – or deleted – a character. Whatever the reason, it’s just not necessary anymore. Take heart in the fact that you recognize this, and you’re ready to make the sacrifice for the novel’s greater good!
So if you’ve had paragraphs that you felt were extraneous, or lines of dialogue that don’t go anywhere, or even entire scenes that don’t work anymore, don’t be afraid to cut those bad boys right out of there. Cut them! Do it! Now!
Doesn’t that feel empowering? Scary, yes, but empowering?
Now do one more thing: save your novel as an entirely new file. And do this every single time you make major revisions and cuts to your manuscript. I just spent about two hours trying to find an old scene that got cut, and now I need again. I was able to find it because I save my novels as new files all the time. No recreating it from memory. It just needs some tweaking to slide right into place.
This way, you can throw things away – and keep them.