The Cutting Room Floor

Ugh…streaming video can be a dangerous thing.

In general, since I killed off cable, I watch much less TV…and I (usually) waste less time watching random crap that is of no real interest to me. On the other hand, I also have this nasty tendency to head down rabbit trails of binge-watching…

33B58394-E08D-4DEB-A984-5CECAADC751AI watched Stripes last night. Well, let me amplify that — I watched Stripes for about the 10,000th time. I can — quite literally — quote that entire movie, line by line, from beginning to end. So imagine my surprise when the version I was watching last night started throwing scenes at me that I had never seen before.

Wait…what the fuck?

This is Stripes, for God’s sake…nothing should surprise me about that movie!

I had to back out of the movie at that point and check out just what the hell was happening. I know I should be surprised that someone decided to put out an “extended cut” of a 30-year-old lowbrow comedy, but I’m not. Sadly, nothing about Hollywood’s money-grubbing desperation surprise me anymore…

NO! I am not giving in to that particular squirrel-moment! I have a post I want to write, dammit! This is NOT a Hollywood post, it’s a writing post!

Now, I should probably point out that I am in fact a fan of watching extended cuts and deleted scenes and the like. But I’m a fan of those things for different reasons than the studios and directors actually intend; I watch them not for “more,” but rather to study and learn and understand just why those scenes were not included in the movie in the first place.

Few movies benefit from the re-introduction of deleted scenes. Most, in fact, are made worse. It is that “made worse” that offers valuable insight and instruction for writers: Not every scene works…not every scene should be included.

Look, when we conceive and plan and write a story,* we are usually too damned close to the material to evaluate dispassionately just what scenes — and portions of scenes — work, and which drag the story down.

*I’m talking long-form stories here…100,000+ word novels.

C9143392-2DB6-4518-B184-63924E93FDE4In spite of all the revision and editing passes we do with our stories, that closeness to the story is why we still need good beta-readers. We need outsiders to point out just when a scene belongs on the cutting room floor.

The Stripes Extended Cut reinforced that reality for me. Without exception, the extra scenes I watched added absolutely nothing to the movie. Worse, they took away from it. At the end of that now-two-hour movie, I was less than impressed.

Of course, being a writer, I also took the opportunity to reflect not on the one-and-only shitty experience I’ve had with Stripes, but to focus on trying to evaluate my current scene-list for The Silence That Never Comes.

Somewhere Peaceful to Die, for a separate example, was by no means “long”, but it still held half-a-dozen scene-fragments that were — as was pointed out to me — better removed. But it took someone else to really point out that to me…I was too close to the material to say that to myself.

You can imagine my reaction to that advice to cut them…probably better than I can illustrate it. “But…but…but, this scene is important! It reinforces X about Character Y!”

You know what? That beta-reader/editor was 100% right. After I made the changes, the story did flow better. The cut scenes did drag things down, they did take away from the story itself.

Just like most deleted scenes.

So, for you other writers out there, I’ll offer this homework assignment: pick a handful of your favorite movies, and watch a video (YouTube is your friend on this) showing a roll of scenes deleted from it. Then think about how those scenes would change things, think about why the writers & director originally wanted them, then then why they chose to cut them.

Was the scene with Bill Murray and Harold Ramis dropping acid with Colombian guerillas funny? Kinda. Did it belong in the final version of Stripes? Not a chance in hell.

Look at my “homework assignment” and remember my oft-expressed lesson: writers need to learn from everything.

On Beta Readers

Hey, look: a practical writing post! I haven’t done one of these in ages…

Now, I realize I don’t have to describe the concept of a “beta reader” to the other writers out there, but not everyone is insane…err, writing. So, for you sane folks, an explanation: a beta reader is someone who reads and critiques a story during the revision process.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor someone doing long-form writing, that means either handing over a full manuscript, or dribbling the material out chapter-by-chapter. In either case, the critique process is one of the most valuable in the entire editing & revision loop.

It is also by far the hardest to get right.

Finding beta readers is easy. Finding good beta readers?  Finding those who will be honest without worrying about “offending” you, or “hurting your feelings”? That’s hard…really hard.

As hard as it is, however, it is also very necessary. I don’t know about you, but after spending a few months on the writing and initial editing of a 100,000-125,000 word manuscript, I am too close to the material to be truly objective. Hell, I would argue that after those first couple of editing passes, most writers — hopefully it’s not just me! — are pretty much inured to the remaining problems in a story. Whether a “missing” scene, or excess words & thoughts that break the pacing, or something else, it’s all too easy to become blind to a story’s faults.

Oh, sure, we writers could step away from a semi-finished story for months — or a year, even — to let the “distance” grow, but that solution is as silly as it is impractical. Finding the faults, when you get right down to it, takes outside eyes.

For most of us, that means turning to friends and family first. “Hey, Bob reads a lot…I’ll have him give it a read!”


I don’t know about you, but the family & friends solution has never been terribly successful for me. When I give something to a reader, I don’t want “feedback”, I want full-on criticism. I need to know the flaws and problems, I need honesty. I live for the day I hear someone say, “This chapter is freaking broken” or “This character is just obnoxious.” God knows, it’s probably a bit too much to hope to hear, “This scene drags, it would be better without it.”

There are writing groups out there, both in person and online, that can help serve this function. Sometimes, they serve very, very well. But other times? Other times, they can have enough negativity, bitterness and internecine squabbling to make you long for your kindergarten days.

So what’s a cranky, needy writer to do? Well, based on my latest experience, the answer is simple: hire someone.

There are other writers out there — better, there are editors out there — who will take on the task of critiquing your story for a modest fee. I’m not talking about copy editing here, I’m not talking about picking apart the grammar and punctuation and spelling…although, Lord knows, many of us could use that service, too. No, I’m talking about story critiques. I’m talking about finding those flaws and needs.

And, yes, I am “preaching” about this because I recently used this very type of service. I had a story that was mostly done (story-wise, not detailed editing-wise), but there were still flaws. I knew there were flaws, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on them; I was too close to the material. I needed help, so I hired it.* It was, in all honesty, the best thing I could have done for that story.

31f8a29bee94d347ef6d39f3090601bfIf you already have good, honest beta readers…congratulations! I’m jealous. If, like me, you struggle to find them, I would strongly suggest that you do not simply rely on yourself. Trust me on this: that way madness lies. Nope, go out and hire those outside eyes.

*If you’re curious, I used someone I found through IWSG…and I endorse the heck out of her. Thank you, Chrys Fey!

Fixing Things

You ever have that nagging feeling that you forgot something?  Your keys…your wallet…your cond…ahem, never mind.

Nagging feelings, that’s what I was talking about.  Yeah, that’s it, nagging feelings.

I’m pretty sure we’ve all felt ’em, or something like them.  Shit, I know it’s a pretty regular thing for me — mostly because I usually did forget something.  There was this time I was going to the airport for a flight to Japan, and I forgot my passport…

That sucked.

You know what sucks worse, though?  That nagging feeling that you forgot something in your story.  That feeling that the 68,000 words you’ve already written don’t include something important, something fundamental to a major character.  And I don’t mean an idea you came up with recently that you have to go back and insert…  No sir, I’m talking about a subplot that is crucial to the development of that character, a subplot that was supposed to be included from the very beginning.

I hate myself right now…especially since this whole subplot was an effort to make right some of the wrongs I did to this particular character in the first story.

I’ve mentioned before just how much I dread the editing and rewrite process, as necessary and valuable as it is.  Now I’m not even going to wait until the damned story is finished!

Plot-wise, however, it is a good time to take a break.  I have some planning and thinking to do about the rest of the story, and a great deal of prep-work.  Oh, and some cutting…definitely some cutting.  Finishing out at 135,000 (projected) words is not a particularly good idea, I think.

Maybe that’s what sets writers apart from “normal” folks: we (usually) get do-overs.  We get to go back and fix our mistakes.  We get to excise what doesn’t work, and to develop and emphasize what does.

If we — well, if I — could do that in our “real” lives, things would be a hell of a lot better!

The caveat I will give to the above goes back to my photography habit.  In this “digital age,” there is a tendency to say “I can fix it in post.”  Beginning photographers often use the ability to edit and modify images after they are taken as an excuse to “spray and pray” in order to get a few semi-decent pictures that later can be “fixed.”

That is, to be blunt, bad photography.  It’s bad technique, it’s bad art, and it leads to bad development as an artist and a photographer. When I shoot pictures, I do my best to get everything right in the lens.  It’s a challenge I have set for myself, and it does a great deal to make me better.*

*Sadly, I don’t generally apply to this the “snapshots” I take with my cell phone.  I’m not a huge fan of using the thing as a camera, anyway, so I don’t spend a lot of time getting “everything right” with it.  Although, I should add, it IS a hell of a lot better to haul around when hiking than a full size DSLR.

So, here’s my question: given that I have to go back and do some editing — fix some things in post, as it were — is that habit any better for a writer? Or is it just as bad form, just as bad technique…and just as bad for development and improvement as an artist?

Shit, I hate questions like that. They make me uncomfortable, and I don’t particularly want to be uncomfortable.

I do, on the other hand, want to be better as a writer…and the only way to get better is to set yourself a higher bar.  I’m jealous of those folks who can get a story right on the first (or even the second) try.  I’m jealous of them, and I pretty much hate them, but goddamit, would I love to be like them (in that regard, anyway)!