Essential Writing Tools — The Hatchet

There’s a saying in writing that you have to be able to “kill your babies”.  Which means that sometimes there is a scene or a character that you just love, but it has to go.  It can’t stay in the narrative.  I’ve faced two of those in the past week.  Both times, on the Wild Cards story and on the novel, I wrote a scene or in one case a set up, and in the back of my head a tiny little voice went “Ah, come on!”

It behooves writers to listen to that tiny voice because when your reader or viewer hits that moment it’s not going to be a tiny voice it’s going to be a bull horn going “AH COME ON!!!”  When that happens you’ve lost the audience’s trust and that’s death for a book or a movie.  There is a compact or a contract or a promise that flows between writer and reader/viewer/player and it all rests in trust.  I believe you are going to take me on an adventure and not disappoint me.

The audience gives us money and in return we promise that we’ll play fair.  We won’t tell you the book is one thing and then not deliver.  Now that doesn’t mean we can’t surprise readers, but we can’t violate the promise we make in the beginning and if we are good at our craft we keep reinforcing that promise all the way through the book until we deliver a satisfying conclusion.  We have to be authentic.  A reader can spot inauthenticity from a hundred miles away.  If a writer is just doing romances because they sell and doesn’t actually love that genre 99% of the time that will show.  That’s also a form of cheating your readers

But back to making cuts — this inability on the part of some writers to lose things they love is why Hollywood is so wary of allowing the author of a book to do the screenplay adaptation.  You’ve got to be brutal when adapting.  Keep the theme, the feel, the basic narrative but the exact moves that told the story in prose form may not work in this different medium.  Scenes are cut.  Other scenes are added.  Multiple characters get merged into one or cut out all together.

My advice to anybody starting out in this business is “if it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t.”  I don’t sit down to write without a detailed outline, but this is one place where I do listen to my hind-brain.

5 Responses to Essential Writing Tools — The Hatchet

  • Gregg Chamberlain says:

    good advice…ta-merci

  • Mac says:

    Working on editing a longer project now and this poses itself frequently. A happy accident though – a section that I though I’d written well and liked but had to be axed now looks like it could stand on its own as a short story. Sometimes your darlings can be resurrected, no?

  • Matt Lombardo says:

    Enjoyed this post and your last one about themes. Had just completed my first writing project — a spec for a superhero show — and amidst trying to form a coherent plot and connecting a wide array of characters in a way that made sense, I forgot to include any emotional beats for my main protagonists. I didn’t give them arcs, especially the central protagonist. They were sort of just moving the plot along from point A to point B without really feeling much Also fell in love with scenes that were either too long, not interesting, or added very little to the overall story. After reading posts like yours and getting notes from other writers, it helped me to make some drastic changes to the script which I believe improved it a lot. Appreciate it greatly that both you and George take the time to write well thought out posts and also to interact with fans!

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      Thank you. I benefited from being in writing groups with tremendously talented people like George and Daniel Abraham, Walter Jon Williams. I think it’s the obligation of a writer to pass on what I learned. Writing is a profession where people really do pay it forward. It’s also a profession where you never stop learning. As I read and watch I am constantly trying to figure out how a writer made a particular scene work so well. I think that’s one reason it’s kept me interested for all these years. Good luck with the spec. Here’s a bit more advice. Right now Hollywood agents seem to be looking for original screenplays or original TV pilots rather than spec episodes. They want to see a writer’s vision.

      • Matt Lombardo says:

        Thanks for the advice. My next project will be to work on a pilot. I’m really glad I wrote the spec though — It was like writing with training wheels on and helped give me some confidence.

        I agree that the writing community is very generous. Lot of responsive professionals on Twitter or that write blogs like yourself. Many great podcasts. Excellent community on Reddit. Lot of nice people in general.

        Thanks for the response though, look forward to reading more posts in the future.

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