Editing With Scene Cards: Cutting Through Noise Right and Left

Editing sucks.

Wandering through the internet, you’ll hear most every author ever admit this before flowing into a huge diatribe about why it’s still the most important part of creating a novel, how it polishes the rough diamond of your work, etc, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t disagree with them­–­ on the contrary, I think they’re absolutely right.

We might be operating on some optimism, though.
Photo By: Steven Depolo

I just don’t intend to spend six paragraphs trying to say ‘no seriously, you need to edit’ to an audience that has probably grasped the fucking concept by now.

Editing still sucks for those who have accepted it’s reality, but if you stick to the scene card method, it doesn’t have to be unbearably shitty or inherently worthless.

Keeping The Work To A Minimum

The first pass I made through my novel was a gentle edit as I read through my work and did the whole spell­-check/phrasing assessment bullshit. It took a week and was the least helpful thing I’ve done with my manuscript to date.

For the second pass, I used the shrunken manuscript technique, determined to check my work for maximum conflict potential, sagging middles, and story development. This also took forever (1 month+) and while valuable, wasn’t that helpful at helping me trim my 450k+ behemoth. Not to mention that the whole process was daunting; looking down the barrel at pages and pages of work to be done, armed with only a highlighter and hope that this would prove useful.

SO. MUCH. INK.
Photo By: John O’Nolan

After a while, I was so damn sick of my characters, I had a hard time not crossing out the second half of my book and scribbling, “And then everyone dies in an unexpected nuclear holocaust. The End.”

Alas, my latest go at it, scene cards have been far more effective: I’ve trimmed at least six scenes I can think of off the top of my head, plus elements of a few more. It took me about three weeks to prep, but once I was done, it took less than three days to spot what needed to be fixed.

So. Damn. Awesome.

But How Do We Do Such An Amazing Thing?

Glad you asked, internet stranger. Most author sites that I’ve found seem to really push this method for planning your rough draft, which is fair, since I used the same method and found it to be just generally kick­ass. Only a handful ever seem to mention this technique for revision, though, which is a damn shame.

Now, while there are a few that use this method, which you can check out here and here, there are some limitations I’ve found that go unaddressed.

Sit tight. I’ll break it down.

First and Foremost: Gather Your Weaponry

The first thing you’ll need is slideshow software. I prefer Google Slides, but PowerPoint or the Open Office equivalent will also work fine.

Now format it so that you have your title bar and two text boxes, like this:

And seriously, that’s all you need, beyond your completed manuscript. That, and maybe a few days/weeks of patience.

Structure Yourself Wisely

Your title bar should be the fastest part of your slide. All it needs to contain is a scene number, a timeline reference (i.e. Day 1, Thursday, March 22nd, etc), a title specific enough that you know what you’re looking at a glance, and some sort of designation of POV. The designation itself isn’t super important, so your character’s initials will do.

Here’s my super fast example:

After that, you need to quickly scan the scene is question and fill in the first line of the box with the characters involved.

Bear in mind you’ll want to keep an eye on your font size. Anything smaller than twelve tends to be a pain in the ass once you print it out.

Once you’ve established the characters present, write the conflicts between forces that are only present in this scene. Don’t try and attribute later drama to a current scene­­–the purpose is to make sure this scene can hold it’s own water. Take a look at my example:

So far, so good. Leave a nice big blank space at the bottom before you go ahead and hop over to the next text box. Don’t worry, we’ll be back. Go ahead and reformat your font to about 14 pt and throw up a numbered list for yourself.

Now read the scene and create a brief list of the things that occur in the scene without trying to go into too much detail. Keep it very bare bones as this is one of the least important parts of the card and will only serve as a fast reference. Don’t include jokes, funny parts, that really great description, that song you wrote for this scene­­–none of that bullshit.

Just tell us what happened in a way that requires minimum context to understand. For example, Adam got shot. Not, Adam got shot and as he fell to the ground thought about his love for his­­–

Get a hold of yourself. Try to write like as though you’re five years old, lack imagination, and are enthusiastically telling someone about what you just read: and this happened, then this happened, then this happened….

See? Fucking easy, just took a little time. Now to run back to the other half of our slide for the money shot.

Go ahead and reformat the space underneath the characters and conflict pairings to about 14­–18 pt font and throw some bullet points at this bitch.

Now’s the toughest part of the whole damn process, but also the most valuable: ­­ list, in the most concise way possible with the least amount of bullshit, what the scene has accomplished.

That’s it.

Often, this is the hardest part. My first spot of trouble was separating events from what the scene has accomplished in terms of the entire story: often, the two were related enough to make me fuzzy. To be clearer, Adam getting shot is an event­­–it doesn’t belong in the accomplishments category, except when you specify that this is a necessary plot point.

The rest of what can go here ranges, but ultimately should have to fight it’s way on to the card.

Did we introduce a new character? Did we foreshadow a later event? Is this scene the climax or the finale? Did we establish something that needs to be understood by the audience in order to understand something later?

And that’s the entire process.

Now Grind It Out

My suggestion is that while you can try small goals (complete five scenes a day), another good method is to just make it your goal to sit down once every day or so and crank out at two or three scene cards per sitting. This keeps it from dominating your day, while still opening your expectations up for days in which you can crank out ten or fifteen.

Depending on the length of your novel, this can be a doozy, but trust me when I tell you that you just need to persevere.

And, For Fucking Finally, The Payoff

Once you print this bad boy out, you’ll see it. All laid out in neat little rows, if you can be honest with yourself and kill your darlings, are the worthless (but fun) scenes that are dragging you down.

It’s like getting to breathe for the first time in a week.

What you’re looking for is what’s in the accomplishments section: how much and how valuable are the points? With each and every bullet point, ask yourself, is that really important? Can I sneak that value (i.e. we now distrust character A instead of B) into a nearby scene without too much bitching?

My general rule of thumb is, unless this scene is the incredibly necessary for story purposes (i.e. your resolution scene, the climax, etc.), if it has less than three bullet points,­­ reassign them to a nearby scene before you drop the scene like it’s unemployed, on your couch, and won’t even consider night-school.

If for some godforsaken reason you just can’t (POV issues, story pacing, relevancy, you suck at relationships, whatever) then you need to do some major work on that scene. As the attending surgeon, I assure you that you have three options:

  1. Smash another scene’s movable value into it and try to delete that one instead.
  2. Infuse importance by adding new things to it: make that bitch pay rent for the space it’s taking up (be careful, this strategy is easy to abuse).
  3. Trim the scene: if it can only pay partial rent, don’t devote 2,000 words to it. Give it something reasonable like 500 or less.

Once you have had this conversation with every damn scene, put it down and go eat a fucking sandwich. Either give what you have so far for someone else to judge or just give yourself some time away from it to gain some perspective. Then, one last time, go over it with a steely gaze and make sure every scene is carrying it’s own weight.

Then go eat another sandwich, this time with bacon. You’ve earned it.

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