Why You Should Kill Your Darlings

This post is by Adrienne Giordano.

As writers, we often face deleting our beloved words. Words we spend an excruciating amount of time crafting, and sweating over.

Yes, you have to kill your darlings or they’ll destroy the pace of the story.

 

I like to think I write a fairly lean book, but my editor for my upcoming romantic suspense novella recently taught me a lesson on pacing. First, (in my own defense!) let me say I’m not a fan of backstory. If I have to use it, I sprinkle it into places where it’s relevant. Otherwise, I nix it. So, I’m not necessarily talking about backstory when I’m talking about killing my darlings.

When I received my revision letter for Negotiating Point, a story about a hostage negotiator trying to free his wife’s boss from kidnappers, my editor suggested the pacing in the opening chapter needed work.

She asked me to amp up the stakes and invest the reader by focusing on the kidnapping rather than the hero’s internal narrative. She wanted me to focus on the danger and how my hero and heroine were going to free the hostage. She suggested I take a look at the sample pages of Catherine Coulter’s The Maze, Cynthia Eden’s Deadly Heat, and Laura Griffin’s Untraceable. All three books have varying writing styles, but the authors did a wonderful job of creating a fast-paced opening.

Catherine Coulter gave me glimpses of her characters without offering too much information. She kept me turning the pages. With Laura Griffin’s book I noticed plenty of white space and short sentences that upped the tension. Same with Cynthia Eden’s book.

After reading these openings, I set out to kill my darlings. Painful? Yes, but it needed to be done. I didn’t just kill my darlings, I massacred them. And I’m happy to share the results. Following is the original version of my story’s opening page showing what I changed/deleted in blue. A brief explanation of why I made the change is in blue italics.

Original

At 10:20 a.m. Gavin stepped into Mike Taylor’s office and found his boss sitting at his pristine, glass-topped desk, his sleeves rolled to his elbows and his dark hair sticking up in the back.

He checked his watch. Yep. 10:20. Stabbing pin pricks crawled up his neck. (I moved this visceral response below to create more tension.)

 As a former FBI hostage negotiator with a master’s degree in psychology, he knew how to actively listen and study people’s habits and quirks and file them in the vault known as his brain. All without judgment. That’s what good negotiators did, they watched, they listened, they stayed calm.

In the six months Gavin had worked at Taylor Security, he’d nailed his boss’s rituals.  The first being that Mike’s office was always neat. Neat in a way that made OCD sufferers sigh with envy. The second ritual was Mike never rolled up his sleeves until after five o’clock. The third? Here lay the kicker. (Deleted so the reader could focus on the kidnapping rather than Gavins internal narrative. Plus, at this point, the reader doesnt necessarily need to know Gavin worked for the FBI or has a master’s degree in psychology.) The man’s appearance, typically as neat as his office, would never be skimped on. His hair sticking up, in Mike’s normal OCD world, would be rectified in a brutally expeditious manner. (Tightened for pacing.) Brutally. Expeditious. Manner.

The sudden change of habit meant (Deleted for pacing.) whatever Gavin had been summoned for had to be a disaster. He shifted his gaze left. Vic Andrews, Taylor Security’s executive vice president, leaned against the windowsill, his arms crossed, eyes narrowed and a general I’m-ticked-off-at-the-world aura.

Gavin stepped forward. “What’s up?”

Mike held his hands prayer-like in front of him, mashing his fingers together until the veins in his hands (Deleted for pacing.) popped.

Vic boosted off the window sill. “Roxann has been kidnapped.”

Bam! Just like that. (Deleted for pacing.) Forget the warm-up. Gavin threw his shoulders back, the shock of the words leaving him wondering if he’d heard right. (Deleted.) He shifted to Mike. “Your Roxann?”

Mike nodded and in that instant, Gavin knew the task his boss would level on him could be the assignment of his career. He kept his gaze steady on Mike and ignored Vic, who had moved to the side of the desk. (Internal narrative. Deleted so the reader could focus on the kidnapping.)

“Have they made contact? Ransom?”

After all those deletions, here’s the revised opening. Notice the shorter sentences and white space.

Revised

At 10:20 a.m. Gavin stepped into Mike Taylor’s office and found his boss sitting at his pristine, glass-topped desk, his sleeves rolled to his elbows and his dark hair sticking up in the back.

He checked his watch. Yep. 10:20.

The man’s appearance was typically as neat as his office. His hair sticking up? This early? In Mike’s OCD world? Unacceptable.

Whatever Gavin had been summoned for had to be a disaster. Stabbing pin pricks crawled up his neck. He shifted his gaze left. Vic Andrews, Taylor Security’s executive vice president, leaned against the window sill with his arms crossed, eyes narrowed and a general I’m-ticked-off-at-the-world aura.

Gavin stepped forward. “What’s up?”

Mike held his hands prayer-like in front of him, his fingers mashed together until his veins popped.

Vic boosted off the window sill. “Roxann has been kidnapped.”

Bam!

Forget the warm-up. Gavin threw his shoulders back and those pin pricks turned to dagger stabs. Had he heard right? He shifted to Mike. “Your Roxann?”

Mike nodded.

“Have they made contact? Ransom?”

Like I said, it was a massacre. I took 349 words down to 181. And I didn’t stop with the first page. Chapter One went from 4,110 words to 3,308. Most of what I deleted was internal narrative or brief backstory. One of my critique partners asked me if I was able to use some of what I deleted somewhere within the story. The answer is yes. All but two hundred of the deleted words were sprinkled into later chapters. It was all relevant information, but the reader didn’t necessarily need that info in chapter one.My lesson learned in this pacing exercise? Give the reader only what they need to establish immediate stakes and get them invested in the story with action, dialogue, or narrative that is high tension. All the rest can come later. As writers, we need to get the readers asking questions so they’ll turn the pages faster and faster until they get those questions answered.

Tell me your opinion: Do you think you can kill some of your darlings?

About the Author: Adrienne Giordano writes romantic suspense and women ’ s fiction.  She is a Jersey girl at heart, but now lives in the Midwest with her workaholic husband, sports obsessed son, and Buddy the Wheaten Terrorist (Terrier). She is a co-founder of Romance University blog. For more information on Adrienne’s Private Protectors series please visit her site. Adrienne can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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Comments

  1. What a great (and true) post! I loved seeing it in action, even!

  2. Hi, James. Thank you. It was a learning experience for sure! It wasn’t easy to cut all those words, but when I saw the difference in the pacing I was hooked. I immediately switched over to the single title I’m editing and started killing all over again!

  3. My first draft was 164,000 words. Second: 105k. That probably didn’t kill many “darlings,” just fluff. It is generally my “Chapters 1” that take the hits: the events in the current chapter one used to be in chapter three, I think. And this is before I have an agent, much less a publisher. I know more will be cut. So long as the story remains true, I’m happy.

    Great post, loved seeing the two versions!

  4. Hi Daniel. I typically can’t bring in my first draft under 100K. By the time we’re done with editing the books are usually around 90-95K. I remember sending my editor a note and thanking her after I received the revision letter for my debut book. She made so many notes I was shocked she bought the book! LOL. She told me the changes actually weren’t that bad and that she hasn’t had a book come across her desk that was perfect. I always think of that when I turn a book in. I always strive to turn in a book that’s my best work, but I know there will be changes and I’m okay with that.

    Good luck with your book!

  5. Adrienne –

    Sometimes I wonder if we have to just get that info on the page somewhere so we, as writers, can move on to the action. I’m already feeling that need with the new story, but with the knowledge that some of the background may get scrapped or moved around. However, I need to know it to go forward.

    Happy Friday!
    Kelsey

  6. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Adrienne. Before and after examples are always so startling in their clarity!

  7. Hi, Kels. Love when my critique partners pop by for a visit! I completely agree. For me, my early draft isn’t the place to worry about it. I get everything down on the page and then start digging into it. I also think reading the work out loud helps to find the spots where scenes start to drag.

    This exercise also taught me to ask if the reader absolutely needs the information at that point. Particularly in high tension scenes. If the answer is no, then I move it somewhere else.

    Thanks for coming by!

  8. Hi, Katie. Thanks for having me today. I had fun writing this post. It was one of those “aha” moments for me!

  9. Excellent post. If only more writers would get out the machete and wield it over their chapters they’d hold the readers interest.

    I agree with keeping what you cut on another doc just in case you want to add some of the “on hold” pieces somewhere else.

  10. I already have murdered many of the poor little things. If they were people, their graves would be scattered all over my yard, and the cops and the neighbors would begin to notice something not quite normal was going on inside the log-sided house. But in this case, I buried them in a file.

  11. Ouch… you just hit me where it hurts…
    I can delete those darlings.. but it takes a lot of nerve and will-power.
    My heart stops every time I hit the delete button, my blood pressure rises with every letter cast into oblivion. The screen turns into a haze, as tears of pain fill my eyes… 😉

    Ok, it’s not quite that bad (Don’t I love dramatizing…)but still, I hate deleting stuff that I’ve agonized over for hours.

    Thanks for a great article, Adrienne. 😀

  12. Hi, Alvarado. It was brutally hard for me to do. In fact, I started on a blank page and copied everything over from the original file just in case I didn’t like how it was turning out. 🙂 Honestly, when I read through it the first time, I thought I’d cut too much, but sent it to my editor to see what she thought. She responded with “I love it, I love it, I love it” and I was a little stunned! Just goes to show how getting someone else’s perspective helps. It’s hard to let go of our darlings though.

    Lorna, good for you for killing them all. The great thing about saving them in a file is that you can use them on another project. Bring them back to life!

    Gideon, I feel your pain. I spent a crazy amount of time on my opening chapter so the idea of whacking away at it really tested me. The good news was that I was able to use most of it somewhere else and that helps to ease the pain. 🙂

    Thanks for commenting, guys!

  13. @TanishaRule says:

    Just had a conversation with a professor about brutal editing. I’ve got my work cut out for me. Get it? Cut out… It’s a learned brutality, getting rid of those favorite turns-of-phrase. I don’t like it, but I’ve got to put my stories on a word-diet. The most difficult part, however, is knowing what to cut.

  14. Oh yes. I have killed off many of my darlings. About 70,000 of them.

    I archived my MS and started over recently. Now I have completed 12 chapters of the rewrite and am much happier with the pace. And so is my editor!

    Like you, I will be able to reuse some of the details and scenes from the other version, but not much.

    It feels good to have a much faster paced YA novel. It suits the story better.

    Thanks for this post!

  15. Thank you for sharing this example complete with explanations – it gave me some useful hints to killing some of my darlings – some of mine will probably not be resurrected later in my story though. To make it easier, I have a deleted passage folder and I’m putting them in there just in case 🙂

  16. Hi, Ruth. I give you a ton of credit! It had to have been heartbreaking to archive an entire manuscript. Good for you for taking that step. I’m glad the rewrite worked out for you. Makes it all worthwhile.

    Heather, I’m glad you found the post helpful. I always keep a file I call “Find A Place For” where I put everything I delete. Even if it’s only one sentence, I copy it into the file. You never know when you might be able to use it! 🙂

    Thanks for popping in!

  17. I’m learning to do this more and more. Great post!!

  18. I often kill my darlings in revision. On the other hand I save all those pieces I tore out so I can either add them back in later. Or perhaps use them as “outakes” and “deleted scenes” (assuming I ever actually get one that I’m happy enough with to publish.

  19. This is a great lesson in pacing and revision! I had actually added information into my first scene after I received so many critiques that had asked ‘why, why, why?’ I was glad they were asking – just what you want your reader to do in the first scene – but I thought perhaps I had overdone it. So I added bits of information, though not too much. I need to really assess what the reader needs to know in that first scene.

  20. I had to laugh. I’ve been killing my darlings for more than two years now on my WiP. The problem is, I keep coming up with “beter” darlings to replace the dear departed, and then I end up killing most of those, too.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I’m facing almost the very same problem and found the need of kill my darlings as well. I found your article by a search in how to do it, and that was the most useful comment I found about the theme! You saved my life, and I can’t thank you enough for this help! 🙂

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  23. Marianne says:

    Hi,
    Although I intend to hire a professional editor later on, I’m in the process of editing my novel. I wonder if you might bring more content teaching us on how to do it in practise (Developmental Editing)?
    I know it’s too complex work for a single post, but any tips in this sense in order to revise the novel before submitting our work to a professional could be helpful!

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