Project 2012: Scene selection: what to throw and what to keep

One of the hardest things to learn when you start your revision is that your first draft is not a template.  Anything and everything can be changed, and in some cases must be changed to write the best story you can write.

When you’ve spent months (or years) drafting your work, written a hundred thousand words of prose, the thought of throwing those words away is frightening.  Of course it is.  You may feel, when facing the draft, that if you just tweak something here, alter a few sentences there, that the story will be “good enough”.

That is very rarely, if ever, the case.  There are writers out there who can produce a first draft that is good enough.  But let’s be honest here.  You’re not one of them, and neither am I.  And “good enough” is never going to stand up to “the best it can be.”  Tweaking leads to pasted-on solutions, band-aids of prose which might hold up for a while, but lose their grip and slip away under pressure.  And the pressure in this case is someone else’s eyes on your story.

So what are you afraid of?  Let me throw some fears out there.  You’re afraid that you have wasted your time writing these words.  You’re afraid that what you write the second time will be worse than the first.  You’re afraid that your love for the story will fall apart if you have to write it again. You’re afraid that if you start messing with the plot and characters your story will fall apart like a badly built house.

I say, let it fall.

All of these fears are valid, and also completely groundless.

1. I’ve wasted my time and my words.

Of course not.  Every word you write is part of you searching for the true story, the honesty that makes a story work.  If you didn’t write the wrong words in the first place, how would you know to look for the right ones?  Every word you write is part of learning what works and what doesn’t work.  And if it doesn’t work, you do it again.  But it is never a waste.  Waste is not writing them in the first place.

2. It will be worse the second time.

This one baffles me.  Are you telling me that you only ever had one idea?  That your inspiration has dried up and you are unable to have a creative thought ever again?  If that’s the case, you’ve probably got the wrong hobby.  Rewriting something is an opportunity to bring more creativity to the work.  Think of your first draft like a platform.  You can see a lot more from here, understand a lot more about the story world you are working in.  Now take that knowledge and build an even higher platform.

3. I will lose my love for the story.

I can only say from experience that rewriting stories makes me love them more.  Because I know they are better.  They read better, even to me.  Knocking off the rough edges makes them shiny, dazzling creatures that I want to release into the world for more people to love.  Writing is a labour of love, after all.

4.  My story will fall apart.

As I said before, let it.  Burn it.  From the ashes will rise a new story, bright and strong and bold like the phoenix.  (It’s late.  Deal with my cliches.) Seriously though, finding the holes in your story is not a bad thing.  It’s an opportunity to bring your creativity to work.  How can I fix this?  Once you start thinking about that, all sorts of wonderful ideas will surface that will lead you to, once again, greater insight into the truth of your story.

Face your fears, but don’t let them stop you.  Once you have finished your spreadsheet, or even as your are filling it in, start thinking about which scenes can stay, and which ones can go.  And when I say a scene can stay, I consider that to include revising the scene.

What can go, first pass

On your first read through with fresh eyes, you should be able to immediately identify those scenes that add nothing to the story.  Scenes that describe a character going from A to B.  Scenes full of introspection without change.  Scenes with no conflict (inner or outer).  Scenes where your plot has taken a side-street.

I like to call this first step Literary Liposuction.  You’re going through and removing the obvious flab from the story.

Put each scene through a quick fitness test in your head.  Is the character in conflict with someone or something or themselves?  Has the situation at the end of the scene changed from what it was at the beginning of the scene? Has either the plot or the character arc advanced in some way?

A simple way to do this is to summarise the scene in one sentence.  Bob wants custody of little Timmy but Jane refuses and they must go to court.  Michael needs to get into the building to rescue Anna and has to work out how to get past the guards.  Lucy is trying to reach Planet X but her ship malfunctions.  You get the picture.

If you find yourself writing something like this: “Bob has a conversation with Judy and there’s a lot of information about the boat plus they have drinks on the deck” then there’s a good chance that your scene is completely pointless.  If you can’t quickly identify the conflict and the outcome, then mark it for removal and move on.  Don’t go searching for meaning or you’ll tie yourself in knots.  This is all big picture stuff.  Losing a whole scene won’t matter.

But my WORDS!

Are just words.  There’s nothing you have written that is so blindingly brilliant that you can’t write it again, and better.  And often those little phrases that we fall in love with aren’t nearly as adored by other readers as they are by us.  So don’t get hung up on words and sentences.  Let them go.

What can go, second pass

A scene may pass the conflict test but still not be a good fit for your story.  But you won’t find that out until you start working with your plotline and your character arcs.  So the second cull of scenes usually happens when you are looking at your chapter/scene progression.  Usually something in these scenes will be preserved, whether it’s the main conflict or an event that impacts on your character.  Make a note of what needs to stay in your spreadsheet, but mark the scene for removal.

Now comes the fun part

Yes, there is a fun part to all this.  Because as you are reading through, you will find some truly awesome scenes.  Scenes you never even remember writing.  Scenes that you read with fresh eyes and go “wow”.  Scenes that make you want to punch the air in triumph and shout “I WROTE THIS!”  (Resist the urge.  It’s embarrassing, even at home.)  Finding these scenes really helps when you’ve just dumped 20,000 words from your manuscript.  Mark these scenes with a great big tick.  These scenes will usually be your big set pieces, your key moments of plot or character progression.

They will need revision, there’s no doubt about that.  But at least the bones of the scene are strong enough to hold up the story.  These scenes are the skeleton you will use to write the next draft. Copy all of these scenes into a new document and hit save.


You’ve just started Draft Two.  Level up, go get some more coffee and get ready for the next stage.

11 thoughts on “Project 2012: Scene selection: what to throw and what to keep

  1. What if I will lose my love for the story. – this is the fear I’m fighting and your answer to it made me smile and something inside me sparkled knowing that it was true.

    In my spreadsheet I’m summarising each scene as you’ve suggested and already scenes that must go have create the opportunity for a greatly improved link between the scenes around it that will have a much bigger impact. That’s exciting!

  2. I do tend to worry that my little catchy phrases will get lost in the scene deletion. Sometimes I read over what I wrote months ago and get really excited about the snappy comebacks and quick dialogue. Of course I mean only sometimes, which makes them more precious.
    I always keep deletion file just in case. If I feel like there’s something missing after revising, I’ll go back over what I deleted and see if some of it still fits somewhere. But honestly, it’s usually all garbage and I just need more rewriting. I know there’s still catchy comebacks and quick dialogue hiding in my brain somewhere–or at least in the brain of my character.

    Thanks for all the help revising. I’m not finished with my read through but I’ll try to keep up.

  3. My fear is that the story will fall apart once I start playing around with it. One part of me just wants to leave it alone, but another part of me wants to make it better, and who cares if the story crumbles? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

    Great advice in this post, Merrilee. This is definitely worth rereading when I need to cull some words!

  4. I’m not ready to level up yet.

    I’m working on it though.

    One of my big fears is the one that baffles you. I’m always worried my writing will be worse because I’m always worried my brain is getting worse. I had some loss of brain function happen to me when coming out of my teen years (I lost about 20 functioning IQ points) and I’m always worried I’ll have more happen, and that my best and brightest work will always be in the past, and that I won’t be able to tell that my current work is uninspired crap. Mostly, that’s not substantiated, but it’s a fear grounded in something that has actually happened, so that’s a hard one for me to fight.

    At the end of the day, I save the edits as a second document, so if I muddle it up, at least I have the original and can always go back to that.

    • It may not be much comfort to hear that everyone has the same fear when you’ve had it ‘validated’ in such a nasty way.

      As some famous playwright (whose name I wish I could remember) recently said, the truth is, creative genius (if you want to call it that) comes in waves. Over time, after a dip we get better again (or perhaps just different). Our best work is not necessarily behind us but may instead be the next thing we set our minds to.

      • True. And practicing a craft makes a big difference in the quality of the output, so I have that as a comfort. My fourteen year old self might have been brighter, but her writing was terrible because she had so little practice. :)

  5. Okay, I agree with your first counter-fear argument.

    1. I’ve wasted my time and my words.

    No time writing is ever wasted. Even if what you write is pure twaddle, your writing muscles are still being exercised. (Just don’t get in the habit of twaddling.)


    2. It will be worse the second time.

    This may baffle you, but it is certainly true for me. You ask “Are you telling me that you only ever had one idea?” It has nothing to do with ideas but rather their presentation. On the first write-through, there is a freshness and an energy that is wholly lacking in my rewrites, wherein the prose comes out flat and spiritless.

    3. I will lose my love for the story.

    I write for the same reason I read: to find out what happens next. If I know the ending (and how the story gets there in all its twists and turns), writing becomes mere typing – and I’m a lousy typist. (2 and 3 are obviously tightly linked here.)

    4. My story will fall apart.

    I write holographically, with each word connected – subtly or otherwise – to every other word. There is no way I could, say, globally replace the name of a character, because the rhythm, the feel, the sprachgefühl if you will, of each sentence and paragraph would then be off – even if the change is from Sarah to Sara. (I wish I were exaggerating.)

    This makes rewriting hell for me, but fortunately my “rough drafts” are pretty darn good; I have been told by a number of editors that they are more polished than most people’s third or fourth or seventh. But writing from a perfectionist standpoint isn’t easy, and I don’t recommend it.

    There is good advice here – for a particular type of writer. But as is so often said, there is no one correct way to write, and the right way is what works for you.

    • I used to feel the same way about writing – that I was doing it to see what happened next, that I would lose my love for the story during editing. I still write my first drafts as an exploration, but somewhere along the way I threw caution to the wind and actually allowed myself to pull something apart and let the pieces fall away.

      I think it was fear holding me back from doing that for a long time, but once I did, I found a love for revision. I ADORE it now, I love it as much as writing a first draft. I love making storylines stronger, I love making my characters shine and telling their tales in the best possible way. I never believed I would feel this way about revision, but as someone who has made that transition, I can say it IS possible.

      I’d encourage you to take the bull by the horns and do it, because cracking down that barrier will allow you to really grow as a writer.

      As for the writing holographically thing? I had never heard of that before so it was really interesting to learn something new! I can see how that would make rewriting really hard. Have you found any advice online to help?

      • I can see the potential for me to love revising and make the transition you have. I think my problem is accepting that it will take just as much, if not more, time and commitment as writing a first draft. Why I ever thought it would be any different I really don’t know!

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