Friday, May 9, 2008

Killing your darlings . . . say what?

"Kill your darlings" is a familiar phrase to writers. And trust me, none of us like to hear it. We write something we think is absolutely fabulous, can't wait for others to read and adore it like we do. Then we send it to our friendly readers or critiquers or editors and they say: "Kill it!"

Shriek! Kill it? Say what? Surely you jest? It's some of the best stuff I've ever written! Women will read it and faint in delight . . . grown men will sob with joy! HOW CAN you possibly suggest that I kill it???

Because it doesn't move the story forward, they say. Because it stops the flow. Because it doesn't add anything. Because you've climbed on your private soap box to preach to the reader. Because it doesn't even fit into the story.

So we crawl into the nearest closet and lick our wounds, unappreciated, unloved, misunderstood. Sigh. Then we think it over. These criqituers know our stuff. Even like our stuff. If they are saying something needs killing, it probably needs killing. So we crawl back to the computer or typewriter, poise a finger over the delete key, silently apologize to our darling, and hit DELETE. Sob.

The point of all this, assuming I have one, is that as writers, we are way too close to the "forest." We are IN the story as we write it. We know exactly where the characters are sitting or standing, what the setting looks like right down to the smallest detail, what the characters are wearing, thinking, saying. It's like standing at a party with a paper plate full of appetizers in hand, listening in on the surrounding conversations. So we whiz merrily along, fingers flying over the keyboard, describing what we're seeing, what our characters are doing, and sometimes we might take off on a tangent. That's why we need others to read for us. To keep us on track. To tell us what works. And more important, what doesn't.

The hardest thing for a writer to do is to ask for criticism. And it's what we need the most. Independent eyes, fair eyes, to catch not just typos but plot holes and errors. Things that bring the story to a screeching halt. So we search for good critiquers or editors, those who know and understand our style and can help us stay true to it without wandering off somewhere into left field. And someone who respects our talent enough not to try to get us to write it "their way." And we listen to them and do our best to learn from them.

Because once the book is published, the very last person we want to stop reading our work is the reader who has paid for the opportunity.

Having been on both sides, a writer receiving critiques and a critiquer saying: "Kill it!" I know how tough both jobs are. But a good critique can make the difference between a so-so manuscript and a break-out manuscript. Are you in a good critique group? Have a terrific editor that polishes all the rough edges off your manuscript? If you are struggling to get published, maybe it's time for a fresh pair of eyes on your manuscript?


Sheila Connolly said...

As a trembling newbie writer, I was prepared for tyrannical editors with narrow little minds. I don't know if I was prepared to roll over and do whatever they asked, just to get the book into print. But I have been blessed with good editors. My current one goes straight to the holes in the story and makes constructive suggestions without harsh criticism--and she makes the book better. I feel very lucky.

(Besides, I keep a file of all those discarded bits--you never know when you might find a place for them.)

Leigh said...

Ooo. Killing it can be tough. I still haven't recovered from excising an entire middle of a book!

Lonnie Cruse said...

Leigh. Shriek! The WHOLE MIDDLE of the book??? Gasp! My knees are weak. You are a brave gal!

Sheila, you've obviously found a good editor and they are worth their weight in gold. I have one, too.

Josephine Damian said...

The difference for me that led to my finally getting published was developing what Hemingway called "a built in shock proof shit detector" - in other words, the ability to self edit, to be ruthless with my work once the first draft is done and go out on a seek and destory mission.

Death to my darlings! That's my motto. That's my mission.

Ilana said...

As yet unpublished, but having edited my WIP 3 times, cutting the parts I loved but were not moving the story forward, info dumps, or way too much back story was hard at first.

I printed them out, and stuffed them in a drawer before using the delete key. Just in case, someday...

Lonnie Cruse said...

Josephine, you have tons of courage. I find it really hard to cut something unless my critique group gags over it (which they sometimes do!) Way to go!

Ilana, I hang on to words and paragraphs too. Never know when they might fit elsewhere.

My problem is that I write "short" usually ending a manuscript at 55,000 words or less. Unfortunately, most publishers, including Five Star, will not accept that. So I'm always trying to expand my stories. And searching for more words. I feel pain when authors say they've cut several thousand words and always want to bid on them. So they won't fit my story? Oh.

Kathryn Lilley said...

I never think of it as "kill." I think of it as "park and archive." When I discover (or when one of my critique groups informs me) that a certain passage "doesn't quite work here," I cut it and paste it in at the end of the draft. I separate out all the little pieces of cut paragraphs with asterisks. Sometimes, the cut sections fit someplace else in the story, and I bring them back in. If not, they get archived into a file called nameofbook_paste. Usually, if they make it into the paste file, they're really dead. But I have been known to bring a few of them back to life, sometimes in the next book. Never say die, that's my motto!

Susan Schreyer said...

Oh Chris, how true, how true! My very first kill was (insert strangled scream)75 pages! It took me 3 days of pacing to come to terms with the suggestion and follow through. Thank goodness for computers where my loves can live on in their own private life--uh, file.

I have since found that when the flush of romance strikes with a phrase or paragraph(or entire scene!) that it's a warning sign. Chances are it will have to go to it's own little corner of my computer and quit trying to draw attention from the other children!