Thursday, April 23, 2015

Kill Your Darlings

Donis here. Two days ago I turned in my latest manuscript to my editor. I feel somewhat like I’ve been through a long trial and am now waiting for the judge to return with her verdict. I’m a little scared. Will I be sentenced to community service or hard labor? I’m not expecting the death penalty, but you never know.

The first draft of the story came in at 91,000 words! That is way long for a traditional mystery, which usually comes in at seventy to eighty thousand words. So before I sent it off, I picked up my literary axe and went to work. I was able to reduce the word count considerably just by removing unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Then I removed repetitive descriptions of people, scenery, action. When I go back over a MS, it’s surprising to see how many times I’ll say the same thing twice. Once you’ve said a character is short and fussy, there’s no need to say it six more times. I sometimes forget that I’ve already mentioned some detail over the course of a long manuscript, and sometimes I think that I repeat details because I want to be sure the reader remembers some thing or another. Don’t do that. It’s always a mistake to underestimate your reader.

Removing the detritus and eliminating repetition was easy enough, but my manuscript was still a weighty tome which needed paring. It was time to kill my darlings.

I had to go through and remove all my beautiful, wordy description, all the lovely banter between characters, and all my clever turns of phrase that were delightful and gorgeous and I loved them so...but they didn’t advance the story. I have to tell you that the pain was acute. But the manuscript is at least twenty pages shorter and much tighter. In my heart of hearts I know it’s better, and I also know it could be tightened even further. I do not want the reader to get bogged down in extraneous detail and forget the direction of the story. Or worse, get bored and quit reading.

But I loved my darlings and I didn’t want them to die. This is why we all need a good editor who will look you right in the eye and tell you the cruel truth.

For me, rewriting is the fun part. After the very first draft, my beginnings seldom match the end. Somewhere in the middle of the writing, I changed my mind about this character, or this action, or this story line, didn’t waste time by going back to the beginning and fixing it to fit my new vision. I have gotten caught up in an endless merry-go-round of fixes and never reach the end. I have learned to just keep going until the end and repair all the inconsistencies when I’m done.

As I reread the story, it’s interesting to see how it all turned out, to remember what I originally had in mind and see how the tale changed as I moved through it.

My inner lawyer tells me that I’ll probably be given a short period of hard labor. Anyone who’s ever scribbled a page knows that writing is rewriting. At least I’ve never met a literary Mozart, whose first draft is so perfect that it doesn’t need any alteration. It’s the rewriting that makes the book.


Judith Starkston said...

Oh this is too painfully true. I am in the middle of killing all sorts of darlings (and getting the beginning to match the end still a bit also). I have many words to cut. I swore I wouldn't this time, but of course those gorgeous darlings are there ripe for the slicing. It's the nature of the beast. Back to the salt mines. Thanks for the collegial feel that someone else felt the same.

Eileen Goudge said...

Oh, I know. I'm in the process of killing those darlings. My weakness of wordy dialogue. I have to speak it aloud to hear how it sounds. People in real life often speak in shorthand and so must characters to ring true. Good luck with the weeding process!