Rewriting: The funniest scenes are often the first ones to go
I'm writing a book called The Romcoms that probably won't be finished for another two or three years. I'm taking this one really slow, letting it cook for hours at a low heat like a juicy brisket.
About two years ago, I wrote the first third of the book. And early in this draft is a Thanksgiving scene where Harmony's father (a successful surgeon) is carving the turkey but makes a mistake, cuts himself. Blood from his hand or finger goes onto the turkey. The family debates just wiping it off, or eating around those parts, but ultimately decides they can't serve the bird. So their Thanksgiving dinner becomes all of the side dishes + frozen chicken fingers, bagel bites, pizza rolls, random stuff they pull out from the freezer.
I like this scene a lot. It's funny and feels like the Chinese restaurant back-up plan in A Christmas Story.
But, just like a high school physics class, "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Now that I had the Thanksgiving scene, I needed to follow where that took the story. The result was an interesting plot where the mistake on the turkey gets into Harmony's Dad's head and he develops a little bit of Yips around using a knife. He's afraid to do a surgery. He can't understand how he made such a stupid mistake. He has to work through this issue and regain his confidence.
There's a lot of meat on this bone. Where did this performance anxiety come from? Or was it just a random mistake on the turkey that he's now turning into something way bigger? It became an interesting problem to explore, because the same strengths that made him a great surgeon (ability to obsess over the tiniest details), was now leading to his demise (obsessing over one tiny little mistake).
The conclusion in my rough draft was their family dog just passed away. The Dad was going through some deep grief because, as it turns out, the dog was really the first source of unconditional love in his life. His wife, kids, parents, he had attached his career success and hard work as why they loved him and there was always this fear in his subconscious that if he failed they would all leave him.
Add in all of the current robotic surgery stuff going on in the surgery world, the questions of man vs. machine, again, there's so much to explore with this story line.
But it's not about Harmony's Dad
I have a Note on my phone called "The Romcoms Novel." I add something to it almost every day. There will be a funny quote I think of or an idea for a scene. That's why I say I'm cooking things at a low heat, I haven't actually sat down and wrote The Romcoms since 2017, but I'm thinking about it all the time and storing up tons of material. I have this feeling that the actual writing part will go fast and I'll say, "Yeah, it took me somewhere between two weeks and ten years to write."
These names won't mean anything, but almost every new idea I have ties back to the main characters Ryan, Harmony, Adiva, Mark, Martha, and Ian. The overarching theme of this book is what it's like to go from age 18 to 30. Those characters above are all at different stages of this journey and since the book takes place over three years, three holiday seasons, there's someone going from 18-21, 24-27, 28-30, etc.
And the more these characters develop, the deeper I keep diving into their stories, the less room/energy/resources available to also dive deep into the Dad's surgery struggles. Or the Mom's story line. Some authors could do it, for example Jonathan Franzen or Elena Ferrante could pull this off, but I'm no Franzen. I'm no Ferrante. I need to respect my limits and try to write four or five characters really well, not seven or eight.
And then I started reading a few books on food
Jim Harrison's book The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand. That led me to Simple Cooking by John Thorne. And all the cookbooks by Mario Batali.
This new idea started to form: I want Harmony's Dad to be a great chef and absolutely love food. For some reason, that makes sense to me that a surgeon would also love the details of making great food. They both use knives? I think that might be my entire logic.
I followed this trail, again no actual writing taking place, just thinking through things on a walk with my dog. It led to this idea of his surgery schedule only being Monday through Thursday. He put a hard stop on Fridays + weekends, refused to work, made himself totally available for his family on those days. I had this picture of him and the mom cooking together. How Friday night dinners, Saturdays, Sundays, they were making all out feasts for the family. It was this warm idea that I'm about 95% sure will be the new route.
Which means the funny Thanksgiving fail scene and subsequent months of battling performance anxiety doesn't really fit any more. It's still a good idea, but as the book becomes more about the kids, that means the parents are more side characters than co-stars of the story.
And you follow the trail, every action has a reaction. Harmony and Ryan are falling for each other, but Ryan has never fully gotten over the passing of his Dad. The happiness of Harmony's family, a mom and dad cooking together in the kitchen, this may actually hurt Ryan to see. Could become a difficult part of the relationship for them to work through. Or Harmony who is working really hard on her concussion research, believes she can't take breaks, no time to rest. How does that mesh with her Dad, her hero, the biggest advocate for work life balance. Plus Ryan just sold his company and he's trying to figure out what does he do now. Just chill, hang out with friends and family or does he need to start a new company because that's what he does. Otherwise he'll just be bored.
You can notice some breadcrumbs from the original draft in this new story. Examples:
Ryan's Dad dealing with grief over the family dog may be the seeds of what became Ryan's struggle with his Dad's passing.
Ryan's Dad having the "obsessive gene" and this being both a strength for his work but also a source of struggle could be the seed for Harmony and Ryan who are wrestling with how to balance work and relationships.
When you start writing a book that's meaningful to you, there are going to be themes that you naturally want to write about. Things that matter to you. The fuel that allows you to weather the storms and go through the long arduous process of writing a book.
And it's not like you sit down and say, "Ok, this is going to be a book about love. Grief. Forgiveness." Your themes just naturally start emerging. So, in the rewriting process, even when you're making what feels like these dramatic cuts, chopping out entire scenes, some of your funniest parts, what happens is your main themes, what the book is about (Heather Sellers calls this "The whiskey of your story"), that will re-materialize in whatever the new plot becomes.
You'll lose some of your funniest scenes along the way, but the funny thing is, the more you dive into your characters, the more heart you put into your story, the easier those replacement scenes become to write. Your story starts to take shape and begins to tell you what it's about, not the other way around.
At that point, we're just along for the ride. What a fun ride it is!