Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

The cutting room floor is never wasted

Not every scene you write needs to go in a book -- but you still need to write it.
Normally, I don't allow myself enough time to write more material than I need in a book or script. I've always worked best when I take a run at a story, immerse in it, and write the first take that comes at me. It might be a journo thing. You just don't have the time to dick around in a newsroom. You need to get it right first time, because there usually aren't any second chances if you miss the edition or the bulletin.

Given more time than I need, unfortunately, I simply write a whole new book (or script) because very different ideas occur to me as soon as I finish the first version. I don't mean revisions – I mean a whole new damn book, and as I only get paid for one, that's bad economics. The different ideas may not be better, either . I still believe the stuff that comes straight from the gut first time is going to be most vivid and authentic. I can churn out new books indefinitely, though, so I try to make sure I never give myself the chance. But there are occasions when it's not only okay to write a lot more than you'll ever need, but it's also something you need to do because there's writing that's actually best reserved for the cutting room floor.

I don't mean the "bad writing" you need to get out of your system when you're a new writer. (I'm not sure that holds true for everyone, to be honest, but I mention it anyway) I mean the stuff that I file under the general heading of what I call "compulsory figures," as in the technical competence tests in skating that the audience doesn't see. It's background scenes. They don't need to be in the book, but they do need to be in your head so that you have a three dimensional take on the characters and you've lived through the parts of their lives that influence them.

That might sound like it contradicts some of the things I've said before about creating and realising characters – that you should evolve them on the page, so that you know as much as the reader does, no more and no less. But some of that evolution is going to be too much to include in the book. I'm talking about the events and conversations – especially the conversations – that shape what the characters do in the main story. They'd probably be fascinating for the reader, but they don't necessarily have a place in the structure of the novel (or script); but you as the writer need to know what happened. I don't mean background notes or world-building, either. I mean played-out scenes complete with dialogue.

When characters refer to events with a one-liner, it helps if you know the full story, as long as you're not concealing too much from the reader or just omitting vital information that you're sure you've imparted somewhere. If character X says, "Yeah, I'll never forget your dad's face when I showed him that photo," and that event feels like a seminal moment for the characters involved, take a few minutes or even a few hours to step away from the manuscript and just bash out the scene where the photo was shown. It'll put you firmly in the characters' heads, and when you come to refer to it, you'll feel the weight of the moment.

I end up visualizing a lot of these in my head like video outtakes, simply because that happens to be my cognitive mode for writing, but I also type out some of them. (If you use Scrivener, it's built for that kind of "not for publication" stuff -- just stick it in the project and document notes in the inspector pane.) It's especially helpful if it's proving harder to pin down a character or a relationship than you expected. I find that if a story isn't working for some reason, it means I haven't immersed in some of the characters enough. So if I simply pause and go back to being in their heads, without any intention of what results from it becoming published output, I can get back on track again.

I've done that more with GOING GRAY than I have for most of my recent novels, and it ended up being the only way I could fully work out the motivation of one of the main characters, the deceptively normal but ultimately eccentric Mike. It was a real stretch to be in his head. I had to play out all kinds of scenes between him and one of the other main characters, Rob, to fully understand his worldview and how the two of them work as a team. Mike's a guy whose aim in life is to resist power and just be average, normal, and nice, which is a tall order given his circumstances. Yeah, nice is tough. On the other hand, writing nice guys is quite soothing and uplifting, although stepping back into my own head afterwards feels a bit like being thrown into a no-coffee interview with Genghis Khan on one of his bad days.

More on GOING GRAY in a few weeks. It's a very big book, but beta readers have told me it's a fast read. They're giving me consistent feedback, and I've managed to avoid getting caught out by real-world events this time around, so I won't be ripping the guts out of it again. It's also a departure from my other books in that it's actually a mainstream military thriller with a faint whiff of SF. The fabric of it, though, is exactly what you've come to expect from everything I write; vivid characters, painful ethical situations, and a fair bit of cussing, slotting, and blokes being blokes.