Thursday, August 4, 2011

Revising Scenes--the Big Picture by Elizabeth S Craig

Right now, I’m preparing a book for e-publishing.  It’s a mystery that I wrote five years ago. 

It’s one of those editing tasks where you think it’s going to be a breeze.  That you’ll maybe change some character names, put in more action verbs, brush up a few things and you’ll be done.  Instead, it’s like a “simple” home renovation project where you plan on just painting a bathroom and end up discovering your house has a dangerous structural problem that involves demolition.
The revision is taking me absolutely forever.

One thing that I’ve found that’s making me go quicker is to actually diagnose what’s wrong with a scene.  I did a quick read-through and there were several scenes right away that I wasn’t happy with.

One of the scenes involved a murder suspect’s visit with my sleuth.  The scene just didn’t resonate with me at all.   At first I thought it was because the transition between the previous scene and that one was really brief.  The scene felt abrupt after the discovery of the body.  And it was abrupt.  So I changed the transitions and it read better.
Then I thought that the suspect’s dialogue didn’t sound true to the character.  And it didn’t.  She was using language that didn’t fit her street-tough mentality.  It just didn’t work.  So I changed it.  But then I didn’t like it because I didn’t think the young woman would speak to my elderly sleuth that way.  And it didn’t sound like something I would write for my readers (and I keep my readers in mind while I’m writing.) 

So I decided to look at the big picture.  What was the purpose of the scene?  It was there to give my sleuth some information about the crime scene from the person who discovered the body.  I needed to get my sleuth that information—but she didn’t necessarily have to be the person to deliver it.  Wouldn’t it be better if someone else delivered the information? Oh—and what if the person delivering it was unreliable?  Maybe that person has some useful information, but maybe they’ve got other parts wrong.
Not only could someone else entirely give my sleuth the information, but it didn’t have to be delivered right then.  Not knowing this tidbit was making my sleuth antsy…why not keep her a little antsy for a while and bug other people for the facts she needed?  Why not give her a little mini-conflict?  Why just dump it into her lap without her having to work for it?

Diagnosing a scene’s problem:
What am I trying to accomplish in this scene?  What’s the big picture?
Does this scene need to take place at this particular time?
Should this scene be set in this location?
Should this scene involve these particular characters?  Should other characters be involved?
Does the scene have any conflict? Can conflict be added?

If the above answers are yes, then could the problem be something simple like clumsy dialogue, poor transitions, not enough showing instead of telling?
Finally-- can the scene be cut altogether without losing anything?

When I started really analyzing the reasons I was feeling dissatisfied with a scene, the revision started speeding up. 
Have you had to do CPR on some of your scenes?  What’s your usual approach when doing so?

Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010.  Find her on Twitter (@elizabethscraig), Google+ (Elizabeth S Craig) and the Writer’s Knowledge Base.


Paul Anthony Shortt said...

I had to think like this with my novel when my first round of edits came back. It's a method of thinking I've now tried to apply as I write, so I can make my first draft that much better.

Anonymous said...

Good questions to ask when analyzing a scene. Thanks.


Margot Kinberg said...

Elizabeth - I've had to do those major changes to scenes, too, and they always require a lot more work than you think they will. Good for you to take the time to make it right. I always try to ask myself, "Why is this scene here? What's its purpose?" Then, if the scene tanks and I have to change it, I can go back to that purpose and maybe try to serve it some other way.

Clarissa Draper said...

These are very important questions. I'm currently doing the same thing with an older manuscript and when you take it apart and look at the big picture, it's easier to figure out what goes and what doesn't.

Jessica Lemmon said...

THANK YOU! I ran to get a notebook to write those questions down, how helpful!

Lately what I've been running into are paragraphs of stilted or out-of-order sentences. Simply asking, "Why did I write that paragraph/what am I trying to say?" helps. Then I get out a sheet of paper and rewrite it (hopefully) expressing my point! :)

Jill Kemerer said...

I can relate to this! I rewrote an earlier book last year, and I had to fix major structural problems. One key character became a minor character, and I added another character too. Although it was a lot of work, I'm really proud of that book! Your questions are right on!

Marji Laine said...

I loved the way you analyzed your scene. When I start asking "WHY" questions about my scenes, everything starts falling into place.

Anonymous said...

Great post - I often end up doing these things, but having the organized way to think about them should speed things up next round through.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Paul--It's *so* much better to apply it all naturally, as we go. That's one reason that resurrecting old manuscripts is so time-consuming.

Lou--Thanks for coming by!

Margot--There are always other approaches. It's just a pain to think of them, sometimes!

Clarissa--It sure is! These old manuscripts sure are time-sucks, though, aren't they?

Jessica--So true! Because there was a point to what we wrote, when we were writing it. If we pinpoint our point, then maybe we can think of other ways to integrate it...more naturally.

Jill--Ooh...demoting a character! That can help. I've done that before, too.

Marji--'Why' is key, isn't it? It's when we start analyzing that we come up with solutions.

Jennie--I think it does speed things up. Otherwise I'm just sort of thinking, "This doesn't work." and feeling icky about it and not really fixing the problem.

Teresa said...

Elizabeth, It's hard sometimes to cut scenes that aren't working. It's like choosing between your children. :)

Thanks for the great advice.

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

Elizabeth: I'm actually finding I'm more engaged and enthused about my work now that I'm applying this method as I write my first draft.

Christine Danek said...

These are great questions to ask while revising. I'm cutting now and I will be using these questions as a guide. Thanks.

Lady Gwen said...

I'm going to copy that list - thanks for the tips!

Hart Johnson said...

These are great questions to keep in mind and perfect timing! I am in the midst of 'big revision' where I have dropped 2 PoVs and I've so far been changing when my MC is PRESENT but worrying much over WHAT of the other info she needs and how she will get it. Definitely a challenge.

The Daring Novelist said...

When you're writing a mystery, you've got so much to juggle. You've got to not only handle the character arcs and collection of clues, but also there is usually a surface story which is different than the truth.

My only addition to your advice is that if you have a weakness in a scene, and you can't change it, then play it up.

For instance if you have a character who is behaving out of character (i.e. having to be more polite to your sleuth than normal) make that an element of the scene. Show the character struggling with it.

Sometimes problems are opportunities. (But watch out, you can have so much fun with those "opportunities" that you start creating problems for yourself, and that's not so goo.) said...

Sometimes I lie to myself. Tell myself yes, the location is right, characters right, scene is necessary, etc., when I really know better. But my critique group calls me up on it every time, bless them.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I like that checklist - need to remember it for my next book.
And I hate home renovations. It's never simple!!

Dorte H said...

What an interesting analysis.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Teresa--It IS! I always feel a little sick when I cut out a scene. As a matter of fact, I have a little cut-scene-graveyard file in my Word program. :) But I never seem to put the scene back in...although I have it, JUST in case.

Paul--And if we're enthusiastic, then we work faster. Always a good thing!

Christine--Hope they'll help!

Lady Gwen--You're so welcome!

Hart--I usually like to just supply all the info up front and then have the protagonist work with it....and I'm discovering this really isn't the best way! After all, we like to give our characters some trouble/conflict. :)

The Daring Novelist--Now that is a VERY nice idea, Camille! So point it out to the reader and have the character acknowledge that interacting with the protagonist makes them uncomfortable and out of character. Good point.

Yes! Now I've taken my edits into a whole new area--rewriting. I just need to know when to say when.

Skipper--Sounds like a fantastic group! Yeah, this type of revision is never fun. I'm well and truly sick of it and I'm only 1/3 of the way done now.

Alex--Never simple for me! That's why I hire experts to do any home renovation. Ha!

Dorte--Thanks! And thanks for coming by. :)

Jen Chandler said...

Great post, Elizabeth! Thank you for that. I've never thought of approaching revisions with a diagnosis mentality.

When I'm doing revisions, I ask myself if the scene is true to my characters and true to my voice. My real voice; not the one I feel I should use to impress. If the answer is no, I know I have a lot of revisions to do. It's a lot of work, but so worth it!


Matthew MacNish said...

Interesting take. I'm a pretty big outliner, so generally most scenes that make it into the draft need to be there for a reason, but I have cut some, usually flashbacks and so forth.

Otherwise on the scenes I do keep I will often have to pare down the description, jump into the scene a little later, and imbue the dialogue with a little more authenticity. For some reason my characters often come off sounding like robots in the first draft.

Maryann Miller said...

Good for you for taking the time and effort to improve on the book. So much better for the reader than giving them ho-hum, even though ho-hum had been published before. I think authors who are e-pubbing their backlist books should think about whether to do a rewrite if necessary. And at the least each book should be carefully edited.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Jen--I think the cutting-to-the-chase helps, timewise, for sure!

Matthew--I've run into robotic character syndrome, myself. :)

Maryann--Some parts of the book don't even *sound* like me. It's amazing how much can change in 5 years. Yes, definitely, I think we owe it to our readers to get a book *right*.

Write a book said...

I have been your regular reader for the penguin series... thanks for the post here....

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