Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Deleted Scene--And Why My Editor Killed One of My "Darlings"

People often ask me what it was like working with the great Cheryl Klein (delightful!) and how I responded when she suggested I cut or rewrite scenes (jump? How high?).  Yet Cheryl encouraged me to stand my ground if I felt strongly about something.
But claiming that you want to keep a scene just because you "liiiiiiiked it," wasn't good enough. Let me give you an example. Below is a scene of that got cut from Cleopatra's Moon. A young Cleopatra Selene wakes up in the dark burning to confront her parents (Mark Antony and Cleopatra) about something. The larger scene stayed in the book, but Cheryl wanted me to cut the following portion. I argued for not cutting it.  Why? Because I wanted some lighter moments in an otherwise fairly dark book.  I wanted to "show" Cleopatra Selene's spunkiness. I wanted to make the reader chuckle or at least smile. Here's the scene:

When I awoke in the deepest-dark, I sat up, still burning with outrage that I had been denied such a powerful amulet. I listened for Zosima’s heavy breathing, then slid from my silken couch onto the cold marble, inching my way out into the hallway. I expected Katep to rise from his bench across the hall, but it was empty. Good. He would have tried to stop me.
            “Ah!” a voice said. “I was warned to expect this.” A young Roman soldier emerged from the darkness.
             “Expect what?” I asked in my formal Latin, proud of my improvement in the language, as I knew it pleased Tata.
“A roaming princess.”
            “Oh,” I said, heading in the direction of Mother’s chambers.
            “Wait!  Princess...” The soldier scrambled in front of me, his sword belt slapping against his thigh, the leather straps of his breastplate creaking.  “You must return to your chamber.”
            He was not my guard. He could not tell me what to do.  I moved to go around him. To my shock, the soldier grabbed my arm. “Go back,” he ordered.
I shook him off. “You may not touch the Princess of Egypt under punishment of mastication or death,” I announced, lifting my chin.
His brows knitted.“What?”
“If you touch me you will be either masticated or put to death,” I said slowly as if talking to a dull-wit. It never occurred to me that my Latin was anything less than perfect.
The soldier raked his hands through his hair, cropped in the Roman fashion straight across his forehead. “And by masticated you mean...?”
“You know. When they make you like a girl.”
The soldier paled and stepped back. "Oh. You mean castrated?"
"That's what I said!" I smiled up at him and continued on. 
He did not follow.

It's a small scene, one that became one of my "darlings." When I read it to my critique group, they chuckled. How could she not like it? But her argument--as usual--was sound.
Cheryl: The framework of the book is that a nearly 16-year old Selene is looking back on her life after a traumatic loss; she is gutted and is trying to figure out when her world began falling apart. The conversation with her parents gives us some clues and this scene only delays that conversation.

Me:  But I liiiiike it. It's meant to lighten the moment a little.

Cheryl:  (Graciously allows it to go through one revision.) But after revision two or three (or twelve?), she comes back to it. The message is clear: It needs to go.

Me:  But what about lightening the mood and all that?

Her:  Yes, but what has she just done in the opening scene as she recalls this?

Me:   She has just buried her twin at sea.

Her:  So would she be thinking of lighthearted moments? Would she look fondly upon this little exchange with a Roman soldier?

Me: [Sighing] No.

She was right, of course. It didn't make emotional sense--not matter how "cute" I thought it was. I cut it. This is why editors rock. They keep our stories "honest."

(If this example of editing is at all helpful, let me know. I've got PLENTY of scenes that my editor cut/changed that I can share!)


Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

So, was 'mastication' a real word? Did the soldier just not know the word, or was Selene wrong?

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

@e--I meant it to show that while it was/is a real world (masticate--to chew), she got it confused with "castrate." And that she's so young and full of herself, she doesn't realize it at the time...

Author Lindsay Mead said...

I really enjoyed this and it was fun reading something new about Selene. It was so easy to slip back into her skin!

I'm not looking forward to the day when my editor tells me to cut something that I love, but at least I have warning that it will happen. *sigh*

Ashes said...

Great example! I love getting to see this part of the process. Although it's a cute scene, I can't really picture it in the 'flow' of the book.

Jo S. Kittinger said...

I think you should have had her chew him up and spit him out! Just kidding!
It's fun to see the process behind the beauty!

sally said...

Wow! I'm amazed. I would have wanted to keep that bit, too. It's funny and it gives the little :) So not only do you have to give your character agency, you also have to remember why the teen-aged Selene is remembering back and only give her agency that works with the bigger picture. Writing books with all the parts working together is really tough.

Thanks for sharing the lesson with us.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

@Book Vlogger--thanks, Lindsey. Good luck with your project!

@Ashes--now I see that but I didn't then!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

@Jo--ha! I like how you think!

@Sally--that "working with the bigger picture" is hard for us to do when we're so close to it. Thank goodness for editors!

BJ Schneider said...

I remember a guard who confronted Selene in the hall, so maybe you got to keep some of it..or my memory's on vacation. I have to kill off 4 (four) darlings whom I added in a rewrite that didn't work. I wasn't counting on repainting my office, but it's hard to work with blood all over the walls!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

@BJ--There was a guard who confronted Selene in the hall--it was just this exchange between them that got cut...Good memory!

Cathy C. Hall said...

Yeah, I guess the motto with our "little darlings' is not to get too attached.

But still. I find myself working a scene six ways to Sunday so I can keep a bit that I love. Only to trash it in the end.

And though this scene's cute as a button, it just didn't fit. But I'm glad you saved your stuff, Vicky. Maybe someday you'll write a Cleopatra Selene Meets Justin Beiber in an Ancient Past Meets the Present mashup. Something tells me you'd masticate that up!

Karen Strong said...

Thanks for sharing. Sometimes we are just so close to our work. This is what great editors are for.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

@Cathy--"Masticate it up"--love it! You always make me laugh.

@Karen--exactly. Thank goodness for editors who tell it like it is!

Patricia Cruzan said...

It's easy to get attached to certain scenes or words. It is helpful to see some of the sections that were cut. I enjoyed reading the book.

Gail Strickland said...

ah yes, kill your darlings. I was attending a workshop in Taos, NM once. Walter Jon Williams wrote on the blackboard: "Kill your children." The workshop was held in the lobby of a ski lodge. You should have seen the expressions of the next unsuspecting couple to check in. They thought we were Satan worshippers! Love that scene as published Vicky.

Amalia Dillin said...

It never would have occurred to me to cut that scene -- but your editor's argument is totally spot on! It sounds like you had a GREAT one in her!

patti.mallett_pp said...

This was very helpful, Janice. Thanks!! We get so attached to certain moments that are clever or funny, that make us feel good about our writing in general, and it's hard to judge them in the context of a completed work. I will keep this post in mind when editing future work (since so far there is no editor to do that for me).