100 Hours

This post has a bonus link. These book covers are the best thing I found online this week. They’re brilliant. You need to see them. Okay, down to business.

Last term, there was a documentary filmmaker in my writing course. She gave me one of my new favourite pieces of writing advice. I’m calling it the 100 hours rule, but I don’t really remember how the numbers played out.

According to this woman, when she puts together a film, she goes through hours and hours of raw footage to find the 90 minutes she’ll use. The right bits of film, put together, tell a story. The extra bits are, well, extra. But they have to film it all in order to find the 90 minutes that were going to end up in the finished product.

I had a similar experience with a short story. It wasn’t working at 2500 words, so I blew it up to 10,000. It was too puffy, but at least then I knew the whole story. From there, I cut it back to 6000 words, and that was the version that sold. The 6000-word story was, I have to admit, a lot stronger than the 10,000 word version. But it still hurt to make those cuts.

So the 100-hours rule makes sense to me. You film more than you need, and you write more than you need, in order to find the bits that tell the story in the best way.

But I don’t like to think about it when I’m writing a first draft. After all, I don’t set out to write extra scenes. (Well, not after the pre-writing stage, anyhow, but that’s for another post.) I work hard at my first drafts, and I want to believe that the effort isn’t wasted.

But maybe I’m looking at it wrong. I don’t think the filmmakers view those 100 hours as wasted. They’re just part of the process. Necessary.

One writing teacher advocated writing the first draft, then throwing it out and starting again. And I understand that — I do. After all, sometimes it’s only once I’ve finished a draft or two of the book that I really know what it’s about. But on the other hand, sometimes there’s an energy in that first draft that it seems a shame to lose.

Of course, by the time I’m finished editing, most of that original material is gone or changed anyhow.

I’m not sure I have a process for writing. I’m a planner, except when I’m not. And I do my outlines in a certain way, except when I don’t. The outlines only serve as an entry point, anyhow; once I start writing, things diverge from the plan.

At some point in every project, I have to accept that I’m winging it — that this book is different from others I’ve written, and that I’m a different writer than I was a year ago, and that what worked before might not work this time. That’s fine. It’s good — it means I’m learning.

But one thing I know is true. I will write scenes that don’t make it into the final version. Sometimes I mentally move them offstage — the action happened, but doesn’t need to be shown in the book. Sometimes I decide they represent another part of the character’s life, outside the scope of my story. And sometimes they’re just wrong.

But they always move me closer to knowing the character, and the story, that I want to explore. So from that point of view, I’m okay with putting in an extra 100 hours.

Or so.

Per chapter. (Gulp)

It’s not efficient, but writing isn’t an assembly line. This week, I’m working on an old project. I’ve written many drafts of it, and never felt that I was telling the story I wanted to tell. My edit, this round, is really more of a rewrite. Lots of old material is disappearing, and lots of new material is being added. Some characters are different now. There are key scenes that I know I want, and those will stay, but the way they all fit together might change.

I hope that this is all going to result in “footage” I can use. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. It’s worth trying. And if it results in a few more scenes on the keep pile, I’ll view my 100 hours as time well spent.

If all else fails, I’ll have material for some weird, ebook equivalent of DVD extras. Love those deleted scenes…

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