Monday, August 18, 2014

Kill Your Darlings?

Image by Henry Söderlund, via Flickr
I’m at the stage of editing my book where I’m starting to suspect I’ve been molly-coddling a darling or two. “But,” I wondered, “how does one tell?” Kill Your Darlings was a slogan of the Blood-Red Pencil for some time, so I thought I would ask my fine colleagues the following questions:

1. How do you determine what might be a “darling” - either in your own work or a client’s work? What clues do you pick up?
2. What differentiates a “darling” from a valuable plot thread?
3. Are darlings always evil? Do they destroy a book if they are allowed to live?
4. Have you ever killed a darling and then regretted it?
5. Have you ever relocated a darling to another book where it forms a genuine piece of the plot?

Linda Lane When I wrote my first book, I finished with 20,000 words too many in the inflated first draft. Some of the descriptive passages were so near and dear to my heart. Bottom line: lovely as I thought they were, they didn’t move the plot forward. I still remember the lump in my throat when I deleted one particular segment. Was it evil? Not at all. Did it paint an incredible word picture? I thought so. But the wordiness of the book had to be trimmed to a viable size, so the delete key became my new friend...although I didn’t view it as very friendly at that time. I also seem to recall getting rid of a character, but that’s a vague memory. Obviously, I must not miss him or her now.

As an editor I am much less emotional about cutting the fluff. Again, if a character or scene doesn’t serve a useful purpose in moving the story forward, it needs to go. I’ve had a number of intense discussions with writers who did not share my point of view, but in many cases they agreed after pondering the matter. One in particular insisted on keeping her story “as is”, and I wonder how she’s faring with her sales.

Morgan Mandel I relocated some of my darlings from Forever Young: Blessing or Curse and put them in a second book instead, which was a Collection called Blessing or Curse. The first book had too many characters to start out with, and I was afraid it wouldn’t hold the readers’ attention.

Terry Odell Tough as it is, you have to ask “Does it advance the plot”? I’ve put back a couple of cut scenes when I republished the book as an e-book, since I wasn’t hampered by word length, but I’m more likely to put them in my “From the Cutting Room Floor” section of my website. Anything that sounds writerly -- cut it.

Diana Hurwitz 1 and 2. A darling is anything that an author finds fun, touching, interesting, but doesn’t move the story forward or define character in a useful way. In one of the works that my group critiques, the author is very fond of her story world. She loves piling in world details. She loves her multitude of characters. But very little happens in the chapter and the details don’t necessarily add anything. She’ll say but all these cool things appear, yet there’s no conflict. It’s okay to keep some of the details, but something has to happen. The details can be spread a little thinner.

3. They are not inherently evil, but if they don’t serve the plot in some way, they slow the flow.

4. I can’t say I've ever cut a darling that I regretted, but I have cut a darling or two I loved. The story was the stronger for it.

5. I have not relocated a darling, but I do believe in keeping a file with all the cuttings that could be repurposed later. A friend cut a character from a story and he ended up with his own.

Dani Greer Darlings are mostly those things the writer is attached to and simply WON’T cut. A sure sign that it’s a darling!

How about you, dear readers? How do you determine if something has darling-status? How would you answer the questions I posed above? Curious editors want to know.

11 comments :

  1. The first time I heard Robert Crais speak, he said early in his career, he met with his editor and she said, "Your words aren't precious." He, of course thought they were, but she took a page of his current manuscript and crossed out what Crais says was "half the page" (although I'm sure he exaggerated), But when he read it without the words she'd crossed out he admitted it was much better.

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  2. I think most of us lack clarity where darlings are concerned. That's why we need a critique group or critics to read it through. The main question to ask is does it advance the story in anyway or are you taking an unnecessary detour? There is one other problem I've encountered: a character or setting quirk or characteristic you find endearing but your critics find annoying.

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  3. Whoever said writing was easy? So much to learn, so much to know, so much to put into practice. But killing our darlings is vital. Why? We want to sell our books and build a fan base.

    For example, Gone with the Wind is a classic, but I've never read it from cover to cover because all the fluff drives me crazy. The basic story gets lost in all that detail. Yes, times were different in the thirties when it was written, and readers could casually wade through never-ending descriptions--not so today. I mean no disrespect to Margaret Mitchell or her novel, but we live in a very different world from the one she wrote in. Now sharp, concise, intriguing books that readers can finish in a few sittings meet the needs of most of our audiences. Bottom line: those "darlings" have got to go.

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  4. I cut a whole bunch of pages that gave medical description. I'm sure readers would have skipped over it, so I'm not sure I'd call them darlings. I am sure a lot of research went into it, including hours with a doctor to get it right. The section is gone and no one misses it. Sometimes I get caught up in a beautiful phrase and don't want to let it go, but every time I read it, I stop, which is a sure sign to cut it. Surgical extractions are necessary even if it kills you to delete them.

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  5. I love that last line, Polly. But it borders on being a darling. LOL.

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  6. I just finished a book that had sections where a scene or a monologue just went on and on and on, and I so wanted my Blood Red Pencil. LOL The characters and the situations were important to the story, they just did not need to pontificate for several pages.

    For me, whether reading or writing, the darlings that should be killed are any words that take the reader away from the story. I really dislike those passages of description that stop the story so the writer can describe a character or a place.

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  7. It's hard to cut words, especially since I usually write sparingly, but the story must move forward, and surgery must be made!

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  8. I use two measures to decide if something stays: Not only, does it move the plot forward? But also, does it deepen my understanding of the character? The more I understand the character, the more involved I feel in the plot. Sometimes I look to a trusted reader to tell me what can go. I know I write long, so I'm always excited when someone I trust says, "You don't need these 50 pages," I often say, "Really? Awesome!" and chop away.

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  9. I agree with that, too, Cara. There are scenes that don't move the plot at all, but tell us a lot about the characters. If you have romance in your novels, you better have character development! It doesn't have to be a heavy sex scene to demonstrate emotion or feelings for one another. A simple, seemingly insignificant moment can tell us much about a person, and how they might behave in a later scene. Well said!

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  10. 1. How do you determine what might be a “darling” - either in your own work or a client’s work? What clues do you pick up?
    I think a 'darling' is something that you really, really want to keep in or love, but can't bear to omit.

    2. What differentiates a “darling” from a valuable plot thread?
    A darling may be like extra fruit in a cluster of plums that drain the tree's resources, but do not eventuate into good plump fruit.

    3. Are darlings always evil? Do they destroy a book if they are allowed to live?
    Darlings are not always evil, and while they may destroy a book, they are more often than not like the tartness of unripened fruit, indicating more maturation is required in the plot (ie the excess shrivelled fruit that is sapping resources and will never grow properly and may be hindering the growth of others should be culled).

    4. Have you ever killed a darling and then regretted it?
    Yes. Definitely. So I used the 'undo' button and saved it into another document. Then I had a bright idea and just rewrote everything in a completely different document so that I wouldn't have to kill it and it could live on, but not affect the actual body of work that was better off without it. Every time I have to cull something I love too much, it means rewriting the story without looking at the draft until I can overlook the 'darling' and it is dear no more (or copy/pasting stuff around it).

    5. Have you ever relocated a darling to another book where it forms a genuine piece of the plot?
    Just leaving them to rest a while and see whether they germinate for now. I have discovered that many of my 'darlings' dress very similarly, which goes to show... you know what I mean.

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  11. Hey Dani,

    I am currently in the darling-cutting process with my editor for my YA novel. I actually cut an entire character out of my book. And let me tell you I loved him. I loved his words and actions and his connection with my protagonist, however; he bogged down my main character's personal development. In a nutshell, he got in the way of the heart of the story. So, after a bunch of rewriting, he has vanished and what remains is a stronger, tighter, publishing worthy story.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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