“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” - William Faulkner
The writing process is loaded with steps (forward and back), potholes, meandering trails, mountains, and valleys, so much so that your fingers, brain, and heart may need a few bandages sometimes. They don’t say it’s a blood, sweat, and tears career for nothing! There are epiphany moments, fueled by espresso-laced energy that keep you up half the night or rising before the roosters crow, to get that scene finished (as you think to yourself: “This is awesome!”). And then there are moments like when you get feedback on the first draft of your manuscript from your beloved beta readers, and your heart cringes with their review (and you think to yourself: “This is not so awesome” or worse, “I stink”). But remember that even gold starts out raw and elemental, and is worked and molded into a shiny ring.
Editing is just that – taking the gold, and working it into it a piece of art.
So what’s all this about killing darlings? Faulkner (or the numerous other authors credited with that quotation) put it well. You will need to kill off your beloved narratives or sentences, characters, scenes, plot points, and entire chapters…for the good of the manuscript. It happens to us all. Those golden nuggets written in feverish excitement that had you smiling (or chuckling) to yourself like Gollum from Lord of The Rings, “Oh, my Precious!” ...yup, those parts. Slice and dice, baby. Toss them into the fiery pits of Mt. Doom! Heck, you may even look like Gollum after the nights you’ve put into writing!
And the hard reality is that not everyone will think your darlings are so precious, though.
Killing your darlings can be like pulling a bandage off or as deep as stitching up a wound. With time, it will heal. Yet that doesn’t make the removal and stitching any easier. And in time, sometimes you forget all about the injury or what could have been. It becomes a distant memory or a bumpy scar that your hand glances over from time to time.
So how do we kill our darlings? Judiciously. With sweet abandon. With hesitation. With strategic attacks.
Your red-penned manuscript sits before you on the desk (or the MS Word doc with the glaring colored marks of track changes hums on your computer screen). The edits, comments, and scratch marks stare at you with menacing eyes. Now what? Well, first, you read them. Then, if you’re like me, you mourn, cry, shout, even argue with your reviewer a little. This is usually followed by a sulking period of time, where self-doubts creep in. The comments may need to sit there and marinate for a few days or weeks. If you have other projects you’re working on, you may procrastinate and focus your efforts on those (hey, that’s good! Keep writing something!). But eventually those edits and comments need to be addressed. A version two, a glossier gold ring, awaits after all! The worst thing you can do is ignore it all and give up. Critiques and editing make for a better writer.
Once the sulking and defending are over, it is time to roll up your sleeves and dig in. Usually during the mourning period, I spend my time carefully reading the reviewer’s comments. Always remember, the final decision is yours as writer. You may not agree with your reviewer’s comments. Often, I agree with 75-90% of what my beta readers have said. Some of those thoughts may have already held a residence in my mind before I handed off that coveted first draft. So, I let the cutting begin.
I save those dissected wedges of lines, scenes, plot points, or character flaws in a file. To perhaps be used later. Honestly, those cut sections are usually never resuscitated. They stay forever filed away into a folder of the past. Some of these sections, at the time when they were written, may have indeed been one of my darlings. A scene, thought, or plot point I’d thought was amazingly genius! But with more time, ah, perhaps not so genius…recently, I spent a lot of time for a recent work in progress researching a military base and how to break into one. Yup. That scene got tossed into the burning depths of Mordor. In fact, I gouged out my entire last few chapters and rewrote them to clean up the story. Sure, I have those scenes tucked away in a word document. Just in case.
So how do you know what to cut? That’s up to you. In my previous post (Setting Goals for Your Characters), I discuss the points of GMC – goals, motivation, and conflict. All scenes must a). move the story forward in some way (a goal, motivation, or a conflict) or b). enhance character development. Does the scene (or plot point/chapter/whatever) that needs to be addressed make the cut? Or should it be revised or tweaked? Perhaps told from another character’s POV? Maybe parts of the scene can still be used, but moved elsewhere? Be strategic in your slicing. Look at it all carefully. Does it move the story forward? Is it truly needed? I am notorious for writing whiny, aimless female protagonists in my first drafts – they’ve needed major makeovers to become the strong heroines they’ve evolved into.
So, grab that red pen or keyboard, a side of dark-roasted java or a glass of aged Cabernet, and take a deep breath and dive in, knowing that some darlings need to be tossed into the fire to make room for a literary work that will shine like a golden ring that will lure all its readers in with its beauty.
Mt. Doom doesn't look too scary now, does it? (Mt. Ngauruhoe, New Zealand, inspiration for the LOTR's movie adaptation of Mt. Doom)