Stumbling on Those Golden Scenes

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"Writers' Retreat, Staring at Goats": I'm on the left with a baby bump that I swear looks MUCH bigger from my angle (looking down)

With a baby bump sucking the life out of my short-term memory . . . 

Where was I going with that sentence? 

Seriously. That’s how bad. It is. I don’t think women were meant to be productive during pregnancy at anything except nesting. And I don’t even do that very well. 

(I offer the disorganization of my house as proof. I’d show you photos, but they wouldn’t be pretty. Just show up unannounced if you want to see.) 

Maybe that’s why I get so excited any time I happen to make any small amount of progress on my novel. I’m into the fourth draft, so you wouldn’t think it would be that bad, but for some reason I feel more pressure with each draft. 

Everybody knows the first draft’s crap. No contest. And the second draft, I mean, compared to crap, anything looks good. But then on the third draft readers start to expect, you know, cohesiveness. Character development. Plot. Pacing. Witty dialogue. Wowzer descriptions. All that. 

So by the fourth draft, they’re like, “Why isn’t this ready to publish yet? What’s your hang up? Shouldn’t you be done with this book by now?” 

Jeesh. 

For me, each draft just means that I’ve zoomed in a little closer to finding the finished product. And the zooming in is hard work. Because it requires REWRITING WHOLE SCENES, not just reworking sentences. In early drafts I slash and rethink because I’m trying to make every single scene in the book serve at least two purposes, and often I don’t know what those purposes are until I’ve tried three or four different scenarios. 

Thus, the necessity of a fourth draft. 

For example. On this draft, I’m trying to make my main character and impact character actually impact each other more. I mean, that’s sort of the point. I’m also trying to escalate the danger and the tension throughout the novel (also sort of a “duh”). Those are the big things. Then I also need to tweak the pacing in certain spots, the development of certain characters, the way certain characters are introduced to the reader, etc. 

And of course, the goal is always to show all of those things to the reader. Revision would be super easy if all I had to do was insert a sentence or paragraph here and there explaining what I meant. 

Ha. 

Where was I going with this? 

Oh yeah. Scenes. 

See, the way that I know when a scene is golden is when it fulfills not just one purpose, like revealing character or advancing plot, but multiple purposes without me having to spell anything out. No exposition, just a straight forward scene that shows the reader all kinds of important-and-interesting stuff. 

Let me see if I can illustrate without being very boring. 

At the retreat, a few other writers helped me brainstorm a prank for one of my characters to pull near the very beginning of the novel. The idea ended up working so well that the scene not only revealed at least four of the characters perfectly but it also established certain tensions between characters that will escalate throughout the novel, cemented the dependence of the main character and impact character on each other for survival, and showed the reader exactly what’s at stake because the prank backfires and the danger is suddenly more real than with any other scene I’d written so far. 

Four major purposes accomplished in one scene. Not to mention that the scene happened to be in a spot where the pacing was dragging before and now it’s not. Or that it’s at the beginning, where every scene is so crucial. Or that it came together so naturally, like it just clicked into place and was meant to be there all along, not at all forced. 

When that happens, I wish my computer would automatically play an audio clip of people cheering, “Woo-hoo! You rock! That’s awesome! Best scene EVER! Etc, etc!” (sort of like automatic fireworks when you win Spider Solitaire), because that’s how good it feels to write a golden scene. 

 

Too bad it takes dozens — even up to a hundred or more — of those to make a novel. Thus the pressure for each draft to have more and more fantastic scenes. Revision means eliminating sucky, boring scenes and replacing them with golden ones. 

But the good news is that the more purposes each scene fulfills, the fewer scenes you have to have. I’ve already cut 20% of the first 50 pages this draft just by combining scenes. 

So there you go. If you want to know one of the biggest things I’ve learned in the past five years since I got serious about writing, that was it. Make every scene haul its weight and then some. And if it’s not, throw it out and brainstorm something better. Rewriting the same sentences won’t get you very far; writing a golden scene will push the whole draft ahead. 

Anybody else agree? If my short-term memory were functioning, I’d produce stellar examples from published novels, but maybe I’ll ask you instead: What’s your all-time favorite scene from a novel? 

Leave a comment!

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4 responses »

  1. Hooray! I’m glad this weekend was so productive for you. I was doing well with mine and feeling pretty good about myself until right before I left the retreat. I hit a scene and it was the wrong scene. I went back and tried to fix things, but pretty much it’s been a domino effect. This morning, though, I think I may have figured it out. Which is a good thing since I don’t know how many more scenes I could lose before I gave up and started again from scratch. 🙂

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    • That’s how I was on Friday: wrong scenes, nothing coming together. That’s why hitting a golden scene feels so dang good. Here’s hoping we both keep stumbling on more right scenes than wrong ones!

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