Let’s just admit it. We all get the urge to throttle someone from time to time. Annoying coworkers, overbearing family members, and just plain nasty members of civilization—they all bear the brunt of our frustrations and our mumbled threats. When it comes to our fiction, however, we tend to be a little more lenient.
When I look at that big fat pile of manuscript on my desk, I’m much more likely to lean back in my chair, fold my hands over my stomach, and smile complacently, than I am to pull out the old X-Acto knife and start slashing. My words are like children, and no one in his right mind goes around axing his kids. That first glimpse at a finished manuscript is magical. You hold it in your arms for the first time, and those thousands of words marching across the pages, those words over which you labored for months, suddenly appear imbued with some mystical essence. It’s an essence that writers and mothers alike are familiar with: perfection.
So, really, it’s little surprise that we find it difficult to even see our mistakes, much less draw our razor-sharp red pens and cover the page in bloody excisions. It’s an unfortunate fact, however, that a little bloodletting is about the only way to prevent the inevitable rambling, bloating, and general hubris that find their way into most all of our first (and second and third) drafts.
Years ago, when I was introduced to the writerspeak term “killing your darlings,” my response was to cock a disbelieving eyebrow. The article I was reading made a statement about “taking a look at your manuscript and deleting all your favorite lines.” Understandably, I said no way and chalked the author up as a minimalist kook. It took me years and several less-than-memorable novels to understand that the point of this statement was not that I should be hacking out all my best work, but rather that I should be taking a good, long look at my “darlings” and analyzing whether their presence in the story was the result of necessity or just my smug enjoyment of my own supposed brilliance.
If this is arguably the most painful lesson an author has to learn, it’s also arguably the most valuable. Self-editing is the keenest blade in a writer’s armory. Too often, we fall so much in love with passages, characters, settings, plot twists, ad nauseum, that we miss the bigger picture. We fail to see that our darlings are actually stumbling blocks, both to our writing of the story and certainly to the reading of it.
Scriptwriter Joss Whedon reminds us to “cut what you love”:
Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.
I’ve been doing quite a bit of darling killing this past week, in the latest draft of my recently completed fantasy story Dreamlander. Two of my favorite scenes—scenes that I’d written with much joy and oohed and ahhed over in the second and third drafts—became increasingly obstructive to the realism of the story. Suspension of disbelief was in danger. So I chopped them. In all honesty, I knew they were scenes that should never have made it past the first draft. And as soon as that first flash of pain was over, the relief and the assurance that the story was much the better were overwhelming.
So, here’s to arming ourselves with the reddest of our red pens and setting forth to do some slaughtering of the darlings.
Story by K.M. Weiland