Act Two is Killing Me

Here’s the problem with Act Two: It’s 45,000 words long. Even with allowing it to go to 30,000 (usually my second and third acts are within spitting distance of 25,000) that’s still 15,000 words I have to cut. That’s sixty to seventy pages. That is not something you can do by just dropping scenes. That’s rewriting. And because a book is like a machine full of cogs, every time you delete/change/add a new scene, another cog in the book moves somewhere and changes something else. Acts One, Three, and Four are in good enough shape that once I get Two done, I just have to read from the beginning and find out where all the cogs slipped in the rewrite. But Act Two is being a PITA, so I must go in and rewrite now. (You can stop reading now because the rest of this is just a description of what I’m doing, mostly so I stay on track. Do not expect brilliance.)

So the first thing I did was break the act down into scene sequences. There are seven of them, and they should go about 5000/4000/4000/4000//4000/3000/3000. When I started they were 10,000, 9000, 10,000, 7,000, 4000, 4,000, 4,000, 6,000. At the moment the first two sections are 7000 and 5000, so progress, but Sequence 3 is an ungodly mess, so I have to break it down into What This Sequence Has to Do which is basically establish Nita’s New Normal after the events of Act One:

• Nita wakes up with Nick and the dog and cat and has breakfast
• First Team Meeting
• Button meets Max and shoots him

Yeah, I spent 10,000 words on that. Okay there’s other fruiting around in there but that’s all this sequence has to do: Reset Nita’s world to the New Normal and throw them into the day ahead.

So I need to split this scene sequence into those three parts (smaller is better when revising for coherence) and get rid of most of it, more than half. Focus, Jenny.

Then Part Four is going to be pretty simple because there’s stuff in there that I don’t need and I only have to cut about eight pages. Five and Six are already close to where they’re supposed to be, they’ll be cake. And then the last sequence . . .

Here’s the thing about the last sequence in an act. It’s a kind of climax. It’s a turning point climax, it has to throw the story into the next act, but it also ends the arc of that act. So I cannot dally there. I can’t do cute dialogue and clever asides (assuming I could). The last sequence, like a climax scene, has to work its ass off, and this sequence has a flabby ass. I should be bitching about this part sometime on Wednesday.

And now I must work, ax in hand. I can do this.


16 thoughts on “Act Two is Killing Me

  1. I’m sure you hear this all the time, but although I can intellectually understand the need for to edit well to produce a taut final product, as a reader, it kills me to think of all of the Jennifer Crusie material that gets chopped. (I am the kind of person who would willingly read dialogue for the sake of spending more time with fun characters–for me, it doesn’t need to develop them or further the plot, even.)

    Also, more tangentially, I keep thinking about an article I read about Shakespeare editions and how Act 4 tended to be subject to the most cuts between the quarto and folio versions, if I’m remembering correctly, so for years I’ve thought about the problem of avoiding drag before the final climax, not in the more developmental phase.

    1. The problem here is that I noodled around with this so there is a tremendous amount of just Stuff in here that’s not plot and character. Really, you’re not missing much. But I appreciate the vote of confidence!

  2. Did you just re-invent the expression, Close enough for government work? Measure it with a micrometer. Mark it with chalk. Cut it with an ax.

    I hope it’s a laser-guided ax, at any rate. 🙂

    1. Reminds me of football games. A ref eyeballs where someone was tackled and then they pull a chain to the ball to see if they got enough distance within an inch. So much precision for something so randomly placed.

    1. I love books about bands! The Tommy Dorsey Band was one of my favorites. And Les Brown and his Band of Renown. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman – Love ’em all.

  3. I can see why it would be bad for an act to end with a flabby ass.

    But I can’t help laughing and shaking my flabby ass.

    You’re on the home stretch!

  4. I am wondering where the word count requirements originate. Is that an industry standard? Is it what you yourself have developed as the best structure? A mix of the two?

  5. I don’t know if I’m about to ask some stupid questions. But, maybe this might make a good questionable in the future when you are done with Nita. I’m assuming from what you’ve been doing that 1) you think your acts should all have about x number of words and/or 2) you think all acts in a book need to have about the same number of words to feel balanced. So, given that, could you, hypothetically, split act 2 into two acts and have five acts instead of four? Are you perhaps not taking this step because you are running up against what you think the ultimate page limit for the book should be in order to be marketable? And does that definition of marketability and the limitations on pages/words depend on sale to a traditional publisher, as opposed to self-publishing which, I understand, is a definite possibility here. Is there a rule of thumb about the number of acts one can have in a book like yours? I feel like I’ve seen different numbers of acts used in different literary works but perhaps I’m missing something obvious due to the fact that this is not the kind of writing I do.

    In any case, I’m sorry Nita is giving you fits. Good luck in whipping it into shape by Friday (or whenever). I’m really looking forward to reading Nita in its final form, whatever that is. It will be fabulous!

    1. There are no stupid questions.

      I put a post that tried to explain my theory of act length that I think might have answered most of these; we probably cross-posted.

      Questions not answered in the post: You can have as many acts as you want. Acts, in my process, are defined by turning points . . .

      You know what? This probably is a questionable. Let me cogitate.

      But there is no rule of thumb about acts; a lot of writers don’t write in acts at all. And it’s not about marketability, at least in this instance. I think the book is stronger for the cuts I’m making, so even though it’s difficult, it’s worth it.

      Let me get back to you on that whole acts questionable thing. Probably Friday. But the short answer is: You can have as many or as few acts as you want, or no acts at all. Acts are just a structuring strategy, not a rule.

      1. Yes, my questions definitely crossed in the ether with your next post. How funny! But you’ve answered my questions with your reply above as well as your next post. Always great to learn about your process. Thanks so much!

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