Don’t slash and burn. Slash and save the offcuts.

In a single morning, no doubt rather stressful for my manuscript, my ‘Extra bits’ file has gone from two pages to ten. The first three chapters of For the Love of Gods have been conflated into one and the whole thing gets my main character from her bedroom to the wormhole quick sharp, taking in a revelation or two and some explosions along the way. We’ll see what the critters have to say about it. I think it’s better. For the moment that’s all I need.

Editing really is surgery. Cut out a bit here, stitch up a hole there. Do both at the same time. There’s a reason why it’s neverending. How many people have you seen who really should have got off the plastic surgery train a few stations back? The quest for improvement can become an obsession. Writers become like mad parents, constantly nipping and tucking their baby until it resembles a cookie cutter story, with none of the natural personality and character it was born with. It’s so hard to know when to stop. Happily, having only just begun, I know for sure that I am nowhere near having to stop.

I mentioned realising that my original chapter one belonged in the next book. It’s in the Extra bits file, waiting for its moment. Altogether I think I slashed about two and a half thousand words today. But it’s ok. I’m still breathing. Just. The manuscript looks prettier. But I have kept those two and a half thousand words. The creative arts allow us to take energy and convert it into matter. The results should not be dismissed lightly. It’s worth holding on to them for future works, even if later you only use them for inspiration rather than the exact words themselves.

It’s also good to remember what you have actually cut out. You can decide to edit an idea, only to later realise that you have also cut its essence and now you can’t remember what it was. When it’s the odd word here and there, it’s not such an issue, although even small cuts can have drastic effects. However, when you are cutting five hundred words at a time, disasters can happen. Save all the pieces. You never know when you might need them to illuminate a character or prop up someone’s motivation.

I am rapidly becoming a convert to so many things, now that I am seriously writing. I used to scoff at the very idea of an ‘Extra bits’ file. Please! I was Superwoman! Every word I have ever written floated in my head, just waiting for me to pull it out of obscurity, rather like the rabbit and the hat. Yeah, I know. I was young and stupid. Forgive me.

One more reason to have an Extra bits file. It shows me that I have really done some work. I have been ruthless and cut out a LOT of dead wood. Or rather, wood that can be better used to make something else. I can see the changes I have made without having to go by word count (which would be depressing as it’s dropped quite considerably from an hour ago). Being able to see my progress is a powerful motivator for me.

What about you? What helps keep you on track with your editing? Do you have any tips and tricks for letting your writing brain know that it really did achieve something today, even if the word count says differently?

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About Mhairi Simpson

Writer, dreamer. Magic, dragons, pink mice, cake. Come say hi!
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12 Responses to Don’t slash and burn. Slash and save the offcuts.

  1. I always have an excerpts file that I keep my extra bits in, too, and always recommend it to other writers. Like you said, you never know what you might need later, or want to look at–and sometimes I write future scenes that I save for later. (Sometimes I find that by the time I get to those scenes, they’re useless or they change drastically, but they were never worthless. They taught me something about the character or the story when I first wrote them.) The excerpts file for my current novels (I’m writing a story that is taking me 2 books to tell) is 51 pages long. Some of that will never end up in either book. Some of it I wrote for book 1 and cut; some of it I’m saving for book 2. Some of it are my sad attempt to write the epilogue of book 1. (The first book is edited, revised, and being put through my critiquers–it just happens to be missing the epilogue.) All this to say: I absolutely agree with you.

  2. Scott Niven says:

    For some of my short stories, the “extra bits” I’ve saved are 4 to 5 times as long as the stories themselves! I save these bits for some of the same reasons you listed.

    My problem is that my enjoyment of my writing varies day to day. Some days I’ll hate what I’m writing, so I snip here and snip there and suddenly I have 2000 words of extra bits in a new file. Then on other days, I re-read these extra bits and realize how amazing some of them are, and they make the trek from the extra bits file back into the original work. Those are the days I like best! 🙂

    Scott

    • Hahahahahaha. Yes, I guess your mood can have a huge impact. There are days I looked at this MS and just wanted to delete the whole thing. Thank god I didn’t give in to that particular demon!!

  3. ryanl86 says:

    I do a bit of editing for a few different people so its not hard for me to stay on track but it can become hard to have a civilised conversation with the author as each paragraph you cut seemed to be their absolute favourite that they slaved for days over trying to get perfect.

    What I do is I take what is given to me and create my own outline plus timelines for each character. Its basically a big mind map. I start making connections here and there, working out where the plot holes are and which are surplus. I then take the authors work and start matching it up to my outline and timelines.

    I always present my changes to the author. Sometimes there are parts that I want to cut because it doesnt match my outline, but the author had that part in there for a very specific reason and it becomes apparent that more text needs to be added to make the original part make sense.

    Its hard to make the cuts when its your own baby, but it is possible. You just need to turn off the compassion, turn on the ruthlessness, question why every single line has been written and if you dont have an answer better than “because its a really nice piece of writing” then either its gone or you need to write more. Dont ever be afraid to add a scene when you edit, it might just make all the rest of that stuff come together in a more coherent fashion.

    • Oh absolutely – I think it’s very important to be aware that editing is changing what’s already there, not necessarily just cutting stuff out. I often add in bits, usually description that I missed the first time round because the mental movie was playing so fast… That’s going to happen a fair bit in this MS – I haven’t described the fantasy creatures that much and I really need to…

  4. Rachel says:

    Hi Anne-Mhairi,

    I’ve recently started typing up lots of pieces of writing on paper that I know won’t go in the book but it feels useful for background info and nice that I’ve finally got an e-copy!

    I just wondered if you, or anyone else here, has a good filing system for your extra bits? Being a librarian I need a good system of retrieval!

    Thanks 🙂

    • I have to admit, I haven’t got that far yet, although it did occur to me today, as the file expanded, that I would need some way of finding everything. A contents page with the pages linked by internal hyperlink might be a good idea. Then you just open it up, click on the page name (i.e. XYZ gets run over by a buffalo) and it will take you straight to the relevant page.

      Anyone else have any ideas?

  5. knittingknots says:

    I never throw anything major away…and often save both a copy of the edited and unedited file…you never know when you might need it…or can rework something into something else….

    • Oh yes, I saved a copy of my WIP as Corynia – First Draft and then started editing Corynia. That way, as you say, I’ve got it for later and if I get myself into a right state with the edits, I can always go back and remind myself what it looked like in the first place.

  6. lavenderlines says:

    When I first started editing I used to have an Extra Bits folder, but I actually found that it stressed me out. I kept thinking “Hmm, if I put it in the first place, it needs to be there so why cut it?” and then I’d end up plopping cut scenes back in.

    For my BIG edit I print out my WIP and do it old style, so I guess I’m kinda still keeping the cut parts. But when it comes to actually entering the changes into my digital file, I slash, cut, bless and release.

    Buuut…. whenever I start a new edit I copy the WIP and rename it Title_Edit_Month. :0)

    Guess I’m not such an editing renegade after all. LOL

    • I think it’s definitely a good idea to keep a copy of each successive draft. That way if you go too far with editing, i.e. take out the personality, you can always back up to a previous version.

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