On Reanimating Old Outtakes – a Cautionary Tale

Now that the weather is turning cool, I’m getting more frequent cuddly desk companions again. I’m sure it’s me they love, not my warm lamp.

I used to have this writing teacher who did not believe in revising via word processor. Yes – she was old school. But she was firmly convinced that the advent of word-processing software had created lazy revisers, because writers could cut, paste, rearrange and massage the existing words. Before the software, revising meant retyping or rewriting by hand from beginning to end. She thought that recasting the story from the beginning led to greater insights and a more cohesive product. She exhorted us to resist the urge to revise the existing document and instead, type it again from the beginning, the old-fashioned way.

Of course, we all rolled our eyes at her and totally ignored this advice. I mean, who has the freaking time? When you have this great technology that lets you tweak an existing document, why on earth would anyone spend all that time and effort to type it all out again?? So none of us followed her advice.

More and more, though, I’m starting to think she’s right.

Not that I do it.

Those of you keeping track at home know that I’m deep into writing the sequel to Rogue’s Pawn, fondly known as RP2, because I haven’t decided what title I want to propose. I’m kind of waiting to see how the story turns out.

(I love to say things like that, just to imagine all the plotters clutching their heads with anxiety.)

A couple of days ago I realized I’d forgotten to weave in a thread that I needed and that a scene I’d cut from Rogue’s Pawn was exactly what should go there. For all of you readers who bitched noticed that there were some questions left unanswered in the first book, this is part of why. There were chunks that had to be cut out, just to find some kind of reasonable conclusion. I always knew they’d work into the later stories somehow (or hoped), but I wasn’t sure where or how.

So, on Wednesday I pasted in this 5K chunk and yesterday I set to massaging it into place. A task I thought would go quickly.

Um, no.

In fact, having cut half of it and writing a whole bunch of new stuff, I’m still nowhere done with that section.

Worse, I’m starting to realize that if I’d just rewritten the scene, I’d likely be done already.

It’s difficult to explain why, but it’s somehow more challenging to wrestle old work into a new mold that to just write something fresh in the new vein. A lot has changed in the story. This is a scene between Rogue and Gwynn and their dynamic has come a long way. So the way they talk to each other, touch each other, where they’re at in their heads, their goals and desires – all of these things have changed. And that all requires subtle reworking of what they say, how they say it and when, the tone, pacing, word choice.

Yeah, I’m clutching my own head. I totally deserve that.

So, will I just rewrite the damn scene from the beginning? Probably not. It’s reworked now. I did end up just cutting the rest of the scene and I’ll write the second half of it fresh, because a lot of that part no longer applied.

I did a post about six months back on Letting the Babies Stay Dead. It elicited some lively debate on whether outtakes (those babies that need to be “killed” or cut out) should be kept or ditched entirely. In that I said I wondered if I should give all of mine a decent burial, instead of keeping them around in case I could reanimate them.

Clearly I didn’t do it and now I’m looking at the monster I brought back to life by patching new flesh onto old and I’m thinking that if I hadn’t saved that scene, I would have had to retype it from the beginning. Just like my teacher advised us to do.

One of these days I’ll learn my lesson.


Sometimes I think saving stuff is just a way to soothe ourselves.

It becomes an intermediary step between the immediate decision and the final decision. Should I get rid of this dress? This dress that I’ve loved, that I wore to Suzie’s wedding and first kissed Harry in? I’ll put it in this trunk, with other old clothes and use it in a quilt someday.

Now what’s happening is, I’m faced with moving bags and boxes and trunks full of old clothes I’ve been saving. Sure, I sometimes use them in quilts, which is nice. But I never have made picnic blankets from all those old jeans. Never touched most of those beautiful fabrics I couldn’t resist buying. If civilization collapses, however, I can make blankets for all of you.

I give David a hard time (part of my job description) about his not-dirty, not-clean clothes. He has several intermediate stations for them. The chest by the bed is for clothes clean enough to be worn again, but too dirty to hang up. The bathroom floor clothes pile is for another level of dirtiness, though not quite to the point of being committed to the laundry room.

That’s part of it — the unwillingness to commit to the final choice. To be without the thing.

When I started the great Ruthless Revision, I also created an outtakes file. Which I hadn’t done in a number of years. As a young writer, I kept an ongoing outtakes file. Any time I cut even the smallest phrase, I attentively pasted it into this document that I saved. Kind of a living morgue. A museum of brilliant prose that could work somewhere, someday. But really it was just to soothe the pain of deletion. Much easier to cut, paste and save, than send it into oblivion. When you’re a young writer, it’s tempting to think that these wonderful words you weave together can somehow be lost forever. That you’ll never recover them.

This is, of course, utter nonsense.

Which is something I learned, when I discovered that I revisited my outtakes file about as often as I dig into my trunks of quilt fabrics. I admit it: often if I make a new quilt, I just go buy exactly the color and pattern I need. And often it’s easier just to compose something new than fidget with some old fragments, to finagle them to fit.

But, I created an outtakes file for the Ruthless Revision, because I was feeling that pained about it. It’s especially redundant because I’m saving the entire original draft. Enshrined, as it were. That first morning, though, it made me feel better to save the HUGE CHUNKS I was cutting out. After a while, I wanted to check for a bit of information from a section I’d cut. I discovered my outtakes document wasn’t even open. Not only that, I’d failed to paste that bit into it. I hadn’t pasted cuts in for pages and pages. It was easy enough to go look it up in the museum draft.

Apparently I didn’t need my little crutch anymore. I’d just been deleting away.

This ruthless mode can be liberating. Cathartic, even. I’m planning to sell my sewing machine and I’m moving no fabric to British Columbia.

Someone else can make the quilts when civilization collapses. I’ll be busy writing. And deleting.