Behind the Scenes: Outtakes

Post Date: August 10th, 2008

“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

— Michael Crichton

Today’s Word Count: 271, 533 (1374 words gone!)
Page Count: 1013

It used to be you couldn’t see the film clips that hit the cutting room floor. That was until the DVD business got excited about “Special Features,” which included tons of outtakes. When you view certain footage you think, Good thing they left that out! Other clips make you wince at the tough call a director or editor had to make.

Today I post one of my castoffs, and you’ll fast see the reason it got cut. It’s back story, the below-the-surface iceberg stuff Hemingway talked about. It informed my character development while I was drafting but it doesn’t help narrative flow. In fact, it’s very much a big fat ice-beast lurking in the path of my reader. It stops the momentum and resounds with a big ol TWANG when you hit it. (A must-read is Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction). A story “thrums” along, he says, till you the writer leave junk — trash, nails, anything – right in the middle of the road that readers run over. Boom, there’s a flat. The moment is gone and the reader realizes, “Oh, yeah, I’m reading.”

This deleted passage has been stuffed in the “excess_file.” If I’m waffling, it could go into the “save_and_move_file” because I trick myself into cutting by thinking I’ll hunt for it later.

Not likely. And the reader won’t miss it one bit.

I’m talking all rough and tough about cutting but what you have to realize is how important the big derriere of that iceberg is to writing. All that back story isn’t an obstacle while you’re honing that peak that everyone gets to see and marvel at. My characters wouldn’t be rich if they didn’t have a history. Here is some of my protagonist’s upbringing, knowledge that helps me inform her daily choices, but trivia the reader can do without:

I grew up in a tiny ranch house in Burlingame. Dad patched it repeatedly with his workman’s savvy, a postage-stamp front yard boasting a riot of my mother’s flowers. She did her own gardening in those days before hiring out the “illegals” she now despises. In that neighborhood I escaped to the Reillys’ (fellow Irish) or the Washingtons’ (African-American) for the foosball tables, basketball hoops, and firecrackers. There we had backyard barbecues with people Mom barely tolerated while Dad reveled in them. He bowled and drank beer with “the blues” just to harass her: postal carriers, construction workers, waitresses. On that street people worked hard and played hard; morning sunlight glinted off broken glass outside the Reilly’s and off the Pontiac where Mr. Washington spent the night. Mom hated the drama; she kept our doors bolted with chairs up against them. She played Mozart at volume 11 to drown out neighbors on the night prowl.

The sacrifice of this 155 words gave me permission to write a whole new scene. Chances are that one will get cut, too, but right now it feels good to have it in, since I’m busy fleshing out another character and his role in the story and figuring out what’s essential.

Note also the tone of this flashback sounds very much like a godly narrator, even with first-person narration, a character stopped in her tracks to spin you a yarn and act as authority. Meanwhile you as reader are looking around, saying, “Hey, what happened to the story?”

My story runs on dialogue and scene, not summary. Some authors like Jane Austen are brilliant summarizers. Not I. Modern readers also have a low tolerance for it, unless it comes from a brilliant writer like Ian McEwan. Read On Chesil Beach and see how he sums up the zeitgeist of the early sixties, its sexual mores and gender relations, in perfectly-honed paragraphs of interpretation, opinion, and meditation.

My dad’s revising his novel and just by listening to Stephen King’s advice in On Writing about adverbs, he’s cut over 50 pages – and he’s not even through. (Like father, like daughter, we’ll say – he started with over 1,000 pages, too!)

Today’s Writing Goal: Edit 10 more hard-copy pages of the novel with another 1300 words — or more — hitting the floor!

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: The Secret Story

Imagine you are someone else. Change your age – what age do you want to be? Change your height – how tall or short do you want to be? Change where you live — where do you want to live? Do you want to be a boy or a girl? Do you want to have a special talent?

Now pretend you are this new person. Write the secret story that this person would never tell. This is a story of something important that has happened to this person and there is a good reason he or she does not want to tell it. Did you do something bad or good and don’t want anybody to know? Do you live somewhere special or awful and want to keep it secret? Do you know something that nobody else know?

Secondary and Adult: Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

Think of people, things, or experiences in your past that have marked you, but you don’t often talk about it with many people or even anyone at all. It could be

— A fight you had with someone
— A frightening experience you had
— A loss you suffered
— A secret you keep

Now write that story for your eyes only. Tell whatever details you are able to tell.

Put the story away for a few days.

Return to it and answer this question: how does this private story of your life affect your feelings, thoughts, attitude, and actions today?

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Lyn! I like your blog!

    You’re always the teacher; you continue to instruct us! I’ve learned a lot from your first postings – about writing, teaching, understanding one’s self.

    Your stated purpose: to discuss the craft of writing and to do it in a way that is different from other blogs – particularly those that release much too much personal info. Blogs often give too many personal details – so thank you for making that point. (Bio-Hazard! Great pun!)

    You’re using your blog as a motivation tool to rewrite, cut, and edit your novel. Good for you! And you’re motivating the rest of us with your excellent writing prompts. (Another Lyn Hawks book: Writing Prompts For All Ages.)

    After thinking about the numerous points you express so well, I know your novel will be finished, will be published, and will be well-received. The solitary life of a writer requires great discipline, and you have that gift—-to establish and set goals—and to meet them!

    I like Frank McCourt’s quote about teaching (and therefore having no time for writing)! I wish it were different—writers, musicians, artists, actors and playwrights must delay practicing their craft in order to put food on the table and gas in the car. And writers and playwrights submit their work only to wait and wait and wait while someone deems it publishing-worthy. What other profession requires one’s work to be tied up in such a way before being paid! (Another day, I’ll rant about the lack of support for the arts and theater!)

    I ran across this quote from Truman Capote: “Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.”

    So, Lyn, rearrange the rules and keep writing!

    More later,

  2. Lyn Hawks says:

    Hi, YM,

    Thanks for your comments, and the great point about the wait factor in this profession. The Truman Capote quote is a wonderful meditation on our potential for growth as writers. John Gardner said in The Art of Fiction that “Writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing,” and if a teacher isn’t on the horizon we have to ask the authors we read and our reflection on their works to be our MFA progam, fueled by that passion to be better at the craft. My current “personal MFA” is based on a good dose of Ian McEwan and J.D. Salinger right now. While there are some amazing programs out there I also believe that the homeschooled author can make some amazing progress, too. In fact, I’ll be posting on the “Faulknerian school” of study soon. Thanks for stopping by!


  3. Natalie says:

    I am not sure whether I should have a “flashback” or not. Actually I am not sure if what I am doing is backstory or flashback. My novel starts out with a young runaway girl who finds her great aunt and uncle. She discovers that they live with and work for vampires.
    I tried to move on with the story (her new life with her aunt and uncle.) I could not because the question “How did this family end up working for and trusting vampires?” “Why do the vampires trust them?”

    So I had the aunt and uncle; along with the two vampires explain the history. They sat the girl down and answered all of her questions. The friendship between the vampires and the aunt and uncle centered on the event of one vampire being tortured. The girls grandparents and aunt and uncle helped rescue the vampire.

    The flashback (or back story) has lots of action and I feel that it advances the plot. I am not sure if I am breaking a lot of “writing rules.” A lot of my novels early chapters consist of back story.

  4. Lyn Hawks says:

    Hi, Natalie,

    Any writing rules we might refer to should be there to keep the reader reading and to make good fiction. Does the back story or the flashback not only answer questions succinctly but also move the story along? Does the dialogue summary by the aunt and uncle do the trick, or would a flashback scene be what’s needed? These are the tough, no-perfect-answer questions we writers have to deal with.

    I highly recommend these two articles on flashback and back story:

    “Don’t Look Back: The Problem with Backstory” by Benjamin Percy —

    and “I Wasn’t Born Yesterday: The Beauty of Backstory” by Eleanor Henderson —

    Let me know what you decide. Good luck!