When Killing is Kind

In Craft, Musings, Writers on Revision on March 31, 2010 at 6:26 pm

I know we writing teachers/editors can be glib with our aphorisms. “Show, don’t tell,” “Cut those adverbs,” and, perhaps most patronizing, “Kill your darlings.”

The last one used to really bother me. If it’s darling to me, it must good right? How dare you tell me that an entire scene, much less chapter, isn’t working.

I’ve had the good fortune to interview a lot of writers, both in my time as a contributing editor for Writer’s Digest magazine, and on my literary radio show Word by Word. And you know what I’ve found? There are writers out there who scrapped ENTIRE BOOKS and wrote them from scratch.

In my own revision I have discovered that those scenes and lines I hold most tightly to are often signs that I am having trouble seeing something else. I’ve said many times that the big, bold vision in my mind often feels like it comes out as a deflated little blot when I start to write. So I hold fast to my beginning impressions. If I only know my character at one layer’s depth, I’m reluctant to cut the scene that readers tell me doesn’t let them in, because it’s my first impression. Or I hold onto that original first chapter because I’m nostalgic for the magical moment in which my character first whispered herself into being in my ear.

And sometimes we have a hard time killing because we’re afraid to go deeper, further, afraid of being out of control.   Every time I have cut a scene, or a chapter, or several, that means that new ones have had to spring up in their place.

But it’s so, so worth it.

  1. Some very good points here. I’m currently cannibalising a draft and am making many of these painful decisions. Many of the darlings I’m slaying contain the first flashes of inspiration about the world and the characters – but they don’t mean much to the reader.

    • Roz, I hear you totally. I have taken my novel down by 20K, then brought it back up, then brought it back down…Revision requires us to change the more we learn about our characters and story. Personally I’m coming to love it!

  2. I received some feed back that my first chapter is a bit wordy at 6k. And it is. But, this gem of a person told me my intro was too long and unnecessary. And, I think she’s right. It introduced ME to her. It set the tone for who she was FOR ME. So, I know I have to cut it, but this is truly one of those instances of killing my darling.

    Very. very well framed advice.

    • Lori, I’m glad you’ve found someone you can trust. Personally I find we just can’t always see our own habits. That’s as much a part of learning to write as anything–becoming our own editor, though frankly I will never stop getting feedback!

  3. Great post. I just finished slashing a short story (for practice – to see if I could cut the word count in half), and cut several passages that I thought were crucial to the storyline. Whew, that was painful! But, I learned a lot. I hope I can take those lessons (and a little more courage) with me during the next pass of a larger WIP, a novel.

    • This slashing process seems to be a theme today! It’s painful at first until, several weeks or months down the road, you realize you don’t even remember what you cut.

  4. I love hearing that published writers have had to cannibalize entire manuscripts! It doesn’t happen often to me (luckily) but I’ve had a few people recently ask me, “So how long have you been writing this novel, isn’t it done yet?” And the truth is that I have written the equivalent of 3-4 rough drafts all different flowers sprouting out of the same manure (pardon the metaphor I am tired ). Now that i am on that ‘final’ draft, I can see the hints of its origin and some of those original manuscripts have transformed into short stories and I have faith that there is more to be harvested from them.

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