Saturday, January 26, 2008

How to kill your darlings without remorse

RIPbeautifulproseWhen Google displayed "How to kill your darlings without remorse"* in a search I thought the page might be about killing off your characters, which I have a hard time doing! It turned out to be about deleting favorite passages you've written that don't move the story forward. Ah, that's hard too! I do find it easier if I let the bit live in the story for a while, read it several times, until it loses it's specialness and then I can move it off to my "Cut stuff" file, which she calls a "Dead Darlings" file :-)
Novelists don't always know where their stories are headed. In fact, some of us never know. One way of writing is to imagine a good ending and then work out how to get your characters there. Another way (my way), is to hang on for dear life while your characters take you where they will.
Yes, this is the fun part of writing for me. The problem is that often the characters want you to tell parts of their lives that don't have much to do with the story! "Let me tell you this funny thing that happened to me ..." So, you let them ramble. You get to know them a little better. Then you quietly delete it later. ;-)
They say a sculptor views a block of marble, imagines a statue, and then chips away every bit of stone that isn't the statue, thus revealing the work of art. That's how I write. My "block of marble" is the first draft of my story, which tends to be at least thirty percent and often fifty percent longer than the 55,000 words my editor wants. But that's fine. I take that draft and patiently chip away everything that isn't my story. I am a ruthless scene-killer, an unremorseful conversation condenser, a wild-eyed wielder of the Delete key. I used to save some of the better quality material that I cut, just in case I wanted it later. But I never did want it, so I no longer save it. There's plenty more good stuff where that came from. If I change my mind and want to reinsert a deleted scene, I just write it again and make it even better than last time.

Is it a waste of my time to write so much more than I know I'm going to use? No, because all writing is practice for more and better writing.
I tend to think of myself as a very mundane writer, with mundane ideas, so when I come up with something that sparks my interest, it feels like it will never happen again. So how could I delete it? But she's right, as she says in another post. The more ideas you come up with, the more ideas you have. Often it doesn't feel like it! Often it feels like the well has dried up and you've used up your last idea. But the more you stretch your imagination, the stronger it gets.

"Killing your darlings" is what many writers call deleting paragraphs, scenes, and even chapters that they've spent hours creating--all for nothing, they often believe. But a writer who can't stomach killing any of her darlings is not focusing on the big picture: her story as a whole. You may hate cutting scenes that are hilarious or poignant or suspenseful, but to be a good writer, you must do exactly that. If anything that you've written, no matter how beautifully, doesn't move your story along, it will bog your story down. By saving your "darlings," you might be killing your story.

Here's a writing tip some of you might be able to use: After finishing your first draft, find the highlighting tool in your word processor and then start reading, using the highlighter to indicate all of the sentences, paragraphs, and scenes that are absolutely essential to your story. (I use a yellow highlighter to remind myself that those parts of the story are "golden.") When you finish, delete everything that isn't highlighted. Save it in a Dead Darlings file if that makes you feel better, but I predict that after a while you'll stop bothering with that.

Now you're left with nothing but story. Your manuscript is still in very rough form, but there's not a boring bit in there because you've taken all of the irrelevant stuff out. Now you're ready to revise and polish. I go through many drafts on a book, so I do a highlighting pass after finishing my first draft, then do it again when I'm nearly finished with the manuscript. After some more tweaking and polishing, I use the highlighting tool a third and final time. When the manuscript is all golden, I'm finished. (Two notes: First, the highlighter is invaluable to me because except during that first pass, I'm not starting at Page One and progressing to the end of the manuscript. I jump around, working on whatever scenes and chapters I'm in the mood to work on. The highlighting tells me what I've finished and what still needs to be looked at. And second, on the last highlighting run I'm just deleting words and sentences, not whole paragraphs and scenes. It's all pretty painless by that time.)

I love every part of the writing process, but bringing a story home--making that final pass with my yellow highlighter and assuring myself that every sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter is "golden" satisfies my writer's heart on the deepest level. This is the best that's in me--at least until my editor points out something that I've missed!
Brenda Coulter, writer of inspirational romance books.


*The quote "Kill your darlings" is much attributed. The original came from Arthur Quiller-Couch in The Art of Writing. "Whenever you feel the impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it -- whole-heartedly -- and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings."
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