How To Save A Scene And Kill A Book

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

As I’ve evolved as a writer, it’s taking me longer and longer to write books.  The reason for that is simple:
I can fix shitty scenes.
That sounds awesome, but it’s actually a huge problem.  Because… well, let me show you a real-life example.
The book I am currently writing now is about a poor kid who stumbles into a job working at the greatest restaurant in the universe.  (Yes, a classic variant on that ol “Willy Wonka” plot, but with more gay sex and molecular gastronomy.)  And after he got the job, I had this great scene:
He would be sitting in front of five glasses of olive oil that the owner of the restaurant had given him to taste, as a preliminary test of how refined his palate is.  (Hint: it isn’t.)  He’d be worried about his future at the restaurant – but then a crazy cook would yank him aside, try to sucker him into looking after her hard-to-maintain starter dough while she went off to get drugs.  She would succeed, and while she was off doing her drugs, our hero would meet his love interest.
Except that scene wasn’t working.
The problem was that there was no forward momentum – not only was there no tension to string us along through this (note that the hero does absolutely nothing in this scene – he’s a balloon, a patsy, the recipient of decisions as opposed to the maker of them), but it has no emotional rise and fall.  What does Our Hero learn during this chapter?  Our Hero needs to learn something in every chapter, so we can propel him forward in this boy-to-man storyline!
So after some analysis, I decided what he would learn would be the value of an Inevitable Philosophy.  Our Hero is, as of yet, not particularly focused – but the crazy cook is.  So the scene becomes about Our Hero learning that the crazy cook is incredibly devoted to her craft, and how he is inspired by her.
Wait.  Then why is the crazy cook sneaking off to buy drugs?
Okay, so we change the crazy cook’s motivations.  She is not just crazy for cuisine – she’s a cook because she’s obsessed with the concept of novelty, needing to try everything in the world!  What better place to try every rare ingredient than in a wildly experimental kitchen like this?  And while she loves cooking there’s a crazy new experience in some other part of the space station that she can only experience right now, and she needs Our Hero to watch her starter dough while she nips off to do this incredibly dangerous thing.
But why would Our Hero be inspired by that?
Okay, so we insert a flashback while he is pondering tasting the five glasses of olive oil – Our Hero’s stern parents have been established as religious zealots, but now we see the exact shape of their zealotry.  They have an Inevitable Philosophy – a guiding goal that consumes them, has them take great risks to restore the fallen state of a once-great empire.  (This is why Our Hero is poor – they’ve been dragging him from starship freighter to starship freighter, living in squalor because they will sacrifice anything to help their lost people.)
But Our Hero?  Does not have an Inevitable Philosophy.  This is a great disappointment to his parents.
And in meeting the crazy cook, Our Hero comes to realize that Inevitable Philosophies come in more variations than he knew.  The crazy cook is absolutely devoted to the pursuit of new things.  And if the crazy cook can have that kind of dedication, then maybe Our Hero can have an Inevitable Philosophy that’s different from what his parents can provide….
But even then, it makes the kitchen look a little dickish, if some random cook can sucker Our Hero in.  We want the restaurant to be a place that Our Hero wants to stay, not some place where the unwary are preyed upon.  So I tweak crazy cook’s approach – she’s not trying to rip him off per se, she’s just so consumed with her own need to get to this New Thing that she doesn’t quite think about what it would do to Our Hero.
So I fix that.  And in the end, what now happens is that Our Hero and the crazy cook get into a furious debate about how selfish crazy cook is, and Our Hero realizes that her pursuit of new things is what gives her an unstoppable drive that Our Hero lacks.  He is shamed, because she’s running off to risk her life to try some new and dangerous adventure, and he is so scared he’s unable to taste the glasses of olive oil, lest he discover he’s a failure.  Crazy cook tells him that he’s not a failure, helps him try the newness of the olive oil.
Not a bad scene.  Could use some more tweaking.  But it’s good enough to plop down and move ahead in this first draft.
The problem?
This chapter is supposed to be about the joy of discovering what it’s like to work in the most glorious restaurant in the world.
For the overall story to work, this chapter needs to actually be that first electric jolt of being escorted into Willy Wonka’s factory, because the kid needs to absolutely fall in love with this lifestyle.  And what I have provided, in a chapter that I worked on for two weeks, is a maudlin scene about the kid’s sense of reluctance, and what a failure the kid is.
And the reason I kept scratching my head and going “No, no, this isn’t good enough” was because the scene was completely the wrong scene.  What I need is a scene that plays to Our Hero’s strengths, one where he uses the kitchen to discover something really wonderful about himself, so we can go “Oh, yes, God, I want to be at this restaurant, look at how good it is for Our Hero!”
But because I’m a “good” writer, I kept fixing the scene, adding all the little mechanical beats to it that would make it work.  As it stands, it’s a pretty good chapter.  Maybe one of the best I’ve written.  It’s got some of the best detail work I’ve ever done, some of the finest characterization, some of the best prose.  But in the end, what we have here is an extremely good scene that shows a kid coming to a painful realization that he’s flawed – and what the book needs is a happy discovery of what he does well.
When they say “Kill your darlings,” this is what that means, my friends.  All things serve the beam.  And because I’m good enough to polish turds with extremely fine-grained paper, I wasted two weeks adding structural fixes to a scene that was never going to do what it should have.
That chapter’s in the kill file now.  And God willing, I’ll learn the lesson that before I start tweaking, I should ask whether this scene would do what I wanted if and when I repaired it.

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