[Blog] How to write for the cutting room floor

I am going to give you the very best piece of advice I think I will ever give any (aspiring) author: learn how to write for the cutting room floor.

When I started Survival Instincts, I set out to write without expectations or insight into the process of writing a book. It was going to be my first novel and I was going to write at least two more that year alone! This one would jumpstart an illustrious career! I’d written fanfiction before and I’d done a lot of role play on forums and around a table. I knew how to build a story, right? How hard could it be?

Oh my, how wrong was I?

The draft I sent off to Ylva was a mess. Hidden within the crap was a really good story, but I’d cut a lot of corners which left questions I’d never gotten around to answering. Most of all, it had taken me far too long to write. Survival Instincts took three years from beginning to end, almost to the day. I hadn’t written full-time, of course, but I spent at least a thousand hours on it—more, probably.

Once Survival Instincts was completed, edited, and off to get copy read, I set out to discover why it had taken me so bloody long to get to this point. Here is what I found out: I’ve rewritten Survival Instincts two times. I self-edited the first draft, sent that in to Ylva, and then cut out and rewrote almost eighty percent because my editor very kindly pointed out all the plot holes I’d convinced myself “no one would notice.” Let me give you my second best piece of advice: They notice; everyone notices all the things you are unsure about.

Writing Survival Instincts taught me a valuable lesson: If I wanted to be an author, I would have to learn how to write quickly. In order to write quickly, I had to learn that editing is a waste of time until you write down “The end.”

“In order to write quickly, I had to
learn that editing is a waste of time until
you write down ‘The end.'”

 

The term “cutting room floor” is used in the film industry as a figure of speech referring to unused footage not included in the finished film. Outside of the film industry, it may refer to any creative work unused in the final product. I use it to indicate the process of taking a finished product—in this case the first draft of a novel—and hacking it to shreds. Why would you ever do something like that? Because you should be writing it with that intention in mind.

Even if you plan out a novel chapter-to-chapter, start-to-finish, you’ll get taken to some pretty strange places. Your characters will develop in ways you never expected them to. Things won’t work out like you planned unless you force them (a major issue in my first two drafts of Survival Instincts), and you’ll probably find yourself completely lost half way through even if you thought you had the whole story set up and ready to go. Don’t worry, unless you write to a specific format or you are a very experienced writer of novels, that’s just what happens. How do you deal with it? By writing your first draft with your second draft in mind. In short: you write for the cutting room floor.

I started my second novel, Origins, book one of The Kincaid Chronicles on August 28th. I plan to finish the first draft on October 30th, so two months plus change after I started. If I keep going at my current pace—2000 words a day minimum, 15.000 a week—I’ll finish on October 19th. I have given myself a month to edit the first draft into a coherent whole before I send it off to beta readers and then my editor. The whole process of writing Origins will take me three months as opposed to the three years it took to write Survival Instincts.

“The whole process of writing
Origins will take me three months
as opposed to the three years it took
to write Survival Instincts.”

 

How is that possible? I’ll tell you why it took so long to write Survival Instincts first. When I wrote Survival Instincts, I polished every scene until it shone. I’d spent hours reading what I’d written and I took out every little error. When I wrote more, I often came to the conclusion I had to edit something a few chapters back and I’d spent hours making that scene shine again. At the end of the line, I’d get to the scene I’d spent hours perfecting and I’d have to cut it out because it wasn’t adding anything to the story. I wasted probably seventy (or even more!) percent of my time on editing scenes that never made it into the book. They were all scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor.

I write Origins with the cutting room floor in mind. I write with every bit of skill, focus, and love I have, but unless I have to go back to edit something for the story, I don’t edit. I might take out a grammatical error if I happen across it, but I don’t start my writing day reading back my work and I don’t polish a thing. My first draft is a rough diamond and once I write down “The end,” I’ll go back to the prologue and polish the entire manuscript with the knowledge I’ll have gained about the characters, the setting, and the way the story will have ended up coming together. That way, when I have to cut paragraphs or even entire scenes, I won’t have “wasted” more than the time I spent writing it.

“Wasted” is an incorrect term, by the way, because everything in your first draft is there for a reason, namely to get you from point A to point B until you figure out a better way to do it in your second draft. By writing for the cutting room floor, you give yourself permission to write whatever you think your story needs at that specific point, and it’ll give you the courage to take a scissor to your work afterward. If it looks unpolished, I guarantee you’ll say goodbye to the superfluous easier.

“If it looks unpolished, I
guarantee you’ll say goodbye
to the superfluous easier.”

 

I challenge you to stop starting your writing sessions by reading what you wrote the session before. Don’t edit anything unless it is because the story threw you a curveball and something earlier in your manuscript truly doesn’t make sense anymore. Trust that what you wrote is good enough to stand on its own until you support it in your second draft. Spent all your time writing. I promise you’ll end up with a manuscript that has the same brilliance a fully polished one would have had and it will cost you far less time. Self-editing will be much more fun too, because it’s much more rewarding to polish something dented and dusty than something which is already polished to death. Write for the cutting floor and cut with verve!

 

Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash.

 

 

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