Monday, January 4, 2010

The Death I Never Got to Finish

What’s your favorite scene your editor asked you to cut?

by Rebecca Cantrell

OK, who of us has NOT been looking forward this question? We finally get to pull out that stuff we always wanted to show. I tend to write in a skeletal form and add layers, so my edits are more of “add more” than the “delete more” variety.

But in the first version of A Trace of Smoke I wanted the murder victim to have a voice. I wanted us to know him and love him on his own terms so we could understand what Hannah lost when she lost her brother. So, I had him talking from beyond the grave. Sadly, I could never make it work. My writing group never got it, and the first question my future agent asked was, “If I agree to represent you, would you be willing to consider removing the dead brother’s voice from the manuscript?”

I said I was and I did and by and large I managed to work all the facts and feelings into the novel. I had, however, let him narrate his own death and there was no way I could do that the same way from anyone else’s point of view.

Here it is, slightly edited so it doesn’t have any spoilers:

It happened here. I feel it. He came from shadows. My murderer.

At first I felt no fear. We walked toward the factory through cold night air. Two hours later there would have been workers, but not yet that day. Light glinted off wet cobblestones. Reflected off his set and angry face.

I was still glowing. I told him about love. That it comes once a lifetime. We can’t escape it when it does. It transfigures the world. I hadn’t expected to find it, hadn’t believed in it, but it had found me. Love was suddenly simple and true. R loved me like that. And that is how I loved W.

Walking with the murderer, I knew. It wasn’t about getting old and weak. It was about trust and openness. I never opened up to a man before. I had never trusted the way that R trusted me. But I did trust W like that. And it made all the difference. I held out my hands to him, beseeching him to understand.

He only said, “I heard you.”

He hit me once, right in the chest. I almost laughed. Such a crazy place to hit someone. Metal clattered against stone. The knife, dropped.

I fell. Muddy water seeped into my dress. Could I scrub it out? Not water. Blood. Puddling around me. Nothing would ever be clean again.

The bastard stared at me. He folded his arms across his chest. He squatted down to watch me die. How could he hate me so?

I stared into his eyes while gray lightened the sky. I got colder and colder. I shivered, too proud to speak. I thought of W and our one night. How I screwed around too long before figuring out that I loved him. I did not want to lose him so soon after finding him. I thought of you and Anton. Your lives going on just the same. And I felt alone on the wet ground.

He just watched. The last sound I heard was my chattering teeth.

He never made a sound.


Gary Corby said...

I can see how introducing the brother's voice might make the book seem paranormal to some, which it certainly isn't.

I know you couldn't have got his death in this way, but if the objective is his voice, then maybe some flashbacks? Not that I'm a fan of flashbacks, but it seems one of the few ways to edge in the victim's voice.

Joshua Corin said...

The voice here is so different from Hannah's, but having read the novel, the tone is exactly what I would have expected for this scene. And I love the contrast of chattering teeth vs. silence.

CJ Lyons said...

Wow, Becky, this is powerful! I see why you wanted to keep it!

Sophie Littlefield said...

hey you - off topic but i too often write "the skeleton" and then backfill the book. A 75k book might be 55 after the first draft.

when I was still un-agented, someone told me that I'd never write a successful book using that method.

I still think it's more rare to write that way than the other - to write big and then scale back - but one more example of "whatever works" right?

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Hi Gary,

Thanks for stopping by! I think the agent's objections centered on adding a paranormal note and also on taking the focus away from Hannah in what is a very personal story. I'd heard enough bafflement with the voice to realize that it needed to go. I did work some of it in through flashbacks (the tin soldiers scene, for one) or short memories or the dialogue of others, so very little was completely lost, except for this scene. And now it's not. :)

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks, Josh!

Ernst's voice was very different from Hannah's. He was, after all, very different from her. :)

Now that I think of it, that probably caused tone problems too.

My agent was right.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks, CJ!

Now that we've done sex and death, I wonder what surprises await us from the other panelists this week...

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Hey Soph! Yeah, I worried that my process was busted. I saw all those folks who write those honkin' first drafts and then cut and then they have a book, whereas I was adding and adding in a totally backward way. An instructor once said "Well, you can write a book that way, but it's harder!"

But one thing I have learned is that my process is my process. I write how I write and that's how I get books. I don't appear to be able to change it.

Glad to hear that there are a few others with the same weird methodology! And, damn it, we ARE published. So, nyeah, nyeah to that person who told you it didn't work.

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for sharing the scene with us, Rebecca. Very interesting.

And I always say that these experiments/exercises that get cut--like writing the brother's voice--are never a waste of time. I'm sure you learned more about your characters even though it was (sniff) cut.

I write short for my first drafts, too--glad I'm not alone!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Hi Meredith! I agree that writing work is never wasted, even if it seems so at first. I learned a great deal about the brother's character writing them and when I put those details back in the book, his character became much richer and more vivid from Hannah's point of view.

Maybe we should start a support group for Short First Draft Writers. But we need a better name...

Gary Corby said...

I'm jealous of Rebecca and Sophie being able to build from a skeleton. That has to be more efficient than writing large swathes which get cut. Why anyone would think it's wrong beats me.

Does that mean you write, say, 50% of every scene? Or full scenes but only 50% of them? What gets left out on the first pass?

Unknown said...

Poor old Ernst, he still haunts me--compliments to the writer!!!

I'm an underwriter too. I think anyone who has worked in a sparse writing form (tech writing, screenwriting, others?) may lean toward this.

When I was young and shallow I thought most men were overwriters because of permission to be confident, and most women underwriters because of lack of permission to be confident, but as I met more writers, the numbers just didn't add up. Now I'm thinking career influence or possibly genetics :)

Backfillers Anonymous!


Unknown said...



Individual scenes are often absent description or a enough info about what the POV character is thinking/feeling, and whole scenes or sequences are missing in the first draft. I do still have stuff to prune, usually dialog, so they are really even shorter than they appear.

That's my style of underwriting, mind you.


Rebecca Cantrell said...

Gary: I think that advantage of overwriting is that when you're done you have it all there, it's just a matter of exposing (but not writing that way, I really have no idea).

I tend to leave out scenes entirely, make the scary scenes too short in the first draft, and not do as much description as I should to really ground the reader. It's a lot of dialogue and action.

Hi Mysti! Maybe I learned underwriting from you. :) Or we both learned it from Matthew...I think it's more to do with how a person thinks of the story. When I did tech writing, I always wrote the overviews first (then had to revise them later) so I had a good sense of the scope I was trying to work the procedures into. I think I do creativing writing the same way, although I wonder how I'd do it if I hadn't spent 1000s of hours writing tech stuff. Probably, I suspect, exactly the same as I do. If I didn't think like that, tech writing would have been almost impossible.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Oh, and Mysti, thanks for being haunted by Ernst! I mean, in a good way for you.

Shane Gericke said...

Brrr! Damn, Rebecca, I'd LOVE to see that voice in full flower through the book. It's shiveringly great. The Lovely Bones used that sort of idea, narrating by the dead person, and it kinda did all right in the market, I think :-)

I always start out underwriting, but wind up overwriting and cutting. Usually write 110-120, wind up at 80-90. It works for me. Whatever works for the writer, I say, use it; there's no right answer.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks, Shane! I think you do need to know your process and just honor it. It took me a while to just trust myself (and I still do all the regular neurotic fretting throughout, of course).

Maybe I'll get an Ernst book going, but right now I have plenty left to do with Hannah.

Jen Forbus said...

I had the same thought that Shane did; it immediately made me think of THE LOVELY BONES. Was it originally throughout the entire novel, Rebecca? Did you oscillate between Ernst and Hannah or was it confined to the murder scene?

With LOVELY BONES it seemed like people loved or hated it and I think a lot of that was because it was so different than what people were accustomed to.

I do hope you can use the idea at some time. It's powerful!

Kelli Stanley said...

Ah, Becks, lovely passage, lovely prose. Thanks for sharing the DVD extras! :)

I think we all deal with small picture vs. big picture--we see piece of writing we love, that we feel is important--the editor looks at the scope of the entire book and says something's gotta go.

For me (I'm not an underwriter), it's small excisions here and there ... and hard part is really stitching up what's left behind so the scar won't show. ;)


Matt W said...

OMG. I would have been SOOO torn with not including this! Maybe as a prologue? I mean...

(My mind is RACING right now! Dozens of directions with the gas pedal RAMMED against the floor.)