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Friday, February 26, 2010

Revision: Jettison the Junk

Many historical accounts of wagon trains trekking across the U.S. include heart-wrenching tales of weary travelers tossing their treasures in order to lighten the load. They were forced to focus on the essentials, so pianos, trunks, and other heavy items littered the trail.

The first phase of my revision process has been deleting the dross. Scene by scene, I've scrutinized my story, determining which of them stay and which must be cut.
The Downside

I'm not going to gloss over things and tell you the elimination of a major portion of my story has been easy, because it hasn't. Being a sentimental person easily moved to tears, I've shed a few as I realized how much material I must remove in order for the story to take off in a new direction.

Yesterday I identified eight chapters in a row that have to go. That's 24 scenes, 86 pages, 735 paragraphs, or 19,469 words that are on their way out.

I shudder to think how many hours of my life were invested in writing those doomed chapters. In addition to creating my first draft, I spent time planning, researching, revising, and editing.

Others invested their time in my story as well. My hubby helped me plot, and he and our daughter listened to me talk about my story as I worked to get it right. Gwynly, my critique partner, and my agent took time to read all 111,000 words and give feedback.

Months of my life and weeks of the lives of people dear to me were, to look at things from a glass-half-empty perspective, wasted.

And I've only assessed the first half of the story. There's another 20-40K words destined to hit the chopping block as I cut even more scenes from the remainder of the story.

My emotions ran the gamut from miserable to excited the past week as I grasped the enormity of the task ahead of me.


Yes. And here's why . . .

The Upside

After having taken time to grieve the loss of the story I'd written, I began to envision the one ready to emerge and grew excited.

Rather than viewing my story as a glass half empty, I realized it's really a glass half full. I have a beginning that has proven itself on the contest circuit. The first quarter of the book is in such great shape it needs only minor tweaking and tightening. And at least a quarter of the rest will work with a few modifications.

So, I'm halfway there!

In addition to seeing the status of the project in a more positive light, I've also realized the half that has to go does not represent a waste of my time. I learned a great deal and honed my skills while writing those chapters.

Although a large portion of the content no longer works because of the major plot change I'm making at the one quarter mark, what I'm deleting is not junk, dross, or rubbish. Those scenes are as well written as the ones I'm keeping. Thanks to my OC tendencies, perfectionism, and past experience as an assistant editor, I produce work so clean from a technical standpoint it practically squeaks. (Amazing what eighteen editing passes will do. *grin*) There are lines of dialogue, interesting incidents, and some clever turns of phrase I can save and use in other places. The scenes I'm deleting aren't bad, just no longer needed.

The Other Side

I'm sure the early settlers of California were excited when they stood atop the mighty Sierras and saw the breathtaking beauty before them. Rather than bemoaning the arduous journey and sacrifices they'd made to get there, they set their eyes on the prize and forged ahead with renewed energy and excitement.

I crested a hill today. Standing at the top, I shifted my gaze and looked back at how far I've come. Yes, I have a considerable amount of work yet to do, but when I look ahead now, I see a gentle slope leading to a not-so-distant destination.

I have the first half of my story outlined on my plotting boards. Gwynly--my ever-supportive husband and plotting partner--and I have brainstormed the second half. I've run the whole thing past my critique partner, incorporated her excellent feedback, and will plot the final 18 chapters over the next few days.

Since I've taken time to plan each scene before beginning the rewrite, the actual writing will flow. I'll have fun, and, because of my preparation, I won't have to make much use of the delete key. After having cut 140K of this story during two revisions, knowing I'm on the right track this time is very important to me.

• • • • •

If you're a writer, have you ever faced deleting a major portion of your story?

How did you go about deciding what went and what stayed?

What did you learn through the process?

Writers and non-writers alike, are you a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full person?


Anne Barton said...

Keli, I loved your metaphor of tossing stuff off the wagon . . . and your sunny outlook. The glass is definately half full. :)

Anne Barton said...

I *definitely* need spell check.

Keli Gwyn said...

Anne, my awesome CP, thanks for all you've done to help in my revision process. You're the best--definitely! :)

Donna M. Kohlstrom said...

Great post!

I'm in the process of doing this with my short story that turned into 7K+ and needs to be 3K!!

But there's so much more to tell!!! LOL!

Anyhow, as I wear the paint off the "delete" key, and rewrite sentence after sentence, I can see how much better the story is with the revisions.

Wishing you success in your writing endeavors!

Kelly@ JustWrite said...


I'm new to your blog and I love it. I'm in the same place writing-wise it seems. Revising,deleting and rewriting. I wanted to thank you because I used a version of your plotting idea (instead of posterboard I found one really long blank wall in my house!). I just finished doing this last night, but it's really helped me to clearly see my book at a glance.

My agent has requested that I change the ending, which means changing things all throughout. I'm about to formally introduce myself to the delete key! I feel your pain, but try not to think of it as time wasted. It's such a process, and I think you have to experience every grueling step. You wouldn't have gotten this far without those words, so it's not a waste after all!

I plan to have a 'graveyard' for my deleted words/scenes/chapters. They are my words, after all, and maybe I can use them again, somewhere else. I think it will make using the delete key easier!

Good luck! I'm brainstorming too, hoping for a moment of clarity where my new ending will present itself to me! :)

Thanks for your posts. Good to know someone is feeling my pain!

Anonymous said...

You sound very "at peace" and hopeful for your story. I am so glad your husband is there with you and supporting you. The end result will be wonderful. :O)

Keli Gwyn said...

Donna, making use of the delete key isn't easy, but, like you, I can see how removing the excess tightens my story and makes it better. That's worth the pain, right?

I hope that once you've put your story on a diet you're happy with the leaner, cleaner version.

Keli Gwyn said...

Kelly, thanks for visiting my blog. I'm glad you're finding my posts helpful.

I like your idea of putting the stickies on a wall. My house is small and wall space scarce, so that wouldn't work for me, but I can see how having the entire story on one large canvas would be very helpful. Makes me think of the storyboard sessions I've seen when watching DVD extras on the making of animated movies.

My use of the delete key is figurative. I keep a copy of my deleted material so I can mine it for phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc. that will work well elsewhere in this story or perhaps in another. I think of my storage area as a treasure chest rather than a graveyard though. :)

Keli Gwyn said...

Diane, I do feel a sense of peace, although it took its sweet time arriving. :) I realized I hadn't plotted a story in a year and a half and had grown rusty. Once I greased the creative gears and got them in motion, ideas began to flow. Don't you love when that happens?

sherrinda said...

Oh Keli! I love hearing your journey through each step of the way. You are so open and honest about it and it is so encouraging to hear your struggles as well as your triumphs! I know your story is going to be so much stronger for all the hours, sweat, and tears you have poured over it. I can't wait to hold it in my hands some day!!!!!

Kelly@ JustWrite said...

Hmmm, a treasure chest is probably (definately) a better way to look at it! I guess my true feelings about the delete key are clear, huh? :)

Kelly@ JustWrite said...

oops, I meant *definitely*

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Keli -

Cutting cherished scenes hurt. I've cut, re-structured, and re-wrote at least two chapters of my first novel. It still needs editing.

Sometimes I think I should have written book 3 before books 1 and 2and worked backward. I might try that some day. :)


MaryC said...

Love the clever way you used the history as a metaphor for your story.

I've been at this point so many times and invariably the story gets better. It is always fun to go back later and look at what you cut. Sometimes I wonder what I was thinking.Sometimes I end up liking the old stuff better. Writing is such an interesting journey.

Good luck

Terri Tiffany said...

Oh my word! That is a lot of deleting! I would have moaned that too but my problem is usually writing too tight and needing to add more! THank you again for sharing in this process!

Susan Anne Mason said...


It's so hard to delete some scenes, isn't it? Especially when we've patted ourselves on the back at how clever we were, or what a cute episode that was. Only to realize that just because it's cute, or fun, doesn't mean it gets to stay!


I give you HUGE kudos for being so brave as to rewrite your story - AGAIN! Best of luck. May the ideas and the words flow as freely as notes from the violin!


Meg said...


My tactic is to cut/paste it into a separate file.

That way I don't have to deal with the thought of actually deleting my work and it's out of the draft.

How I decide? No clue really. If it doesn't add anything, it's gone. If it drags the story down, but something important is there it gets reworked or the important bit gets added into a different scene.

What did I learn? To avoid the NaNoWriMo ideals and edit/revise at the end of each chapter. Not a big one, just a quick look over. Saves so much time later.

Glass is half-full. Half-full is better than totally empty.

T. Anne said...

What a cutie he is!!! I have no celebrity run in's other than the one time I was in an elevator with Kobe Bryant. My husband hates that story!!!

I listen to muse-ic but before and after. I need total silence not even the crickets are welcome to my work sessions.