Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Killing your darlings

 On Sunday I had an interesting experience that led me to think about the skill of editing. Self-editing, that is. I am currently just finishing the second re-write of my fifth Amanda Doucette novel THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE, so what I discovered has special relevance. We writers often talk about having to kill our darlings, or scrub out a whole section of prose, possibly even a whole subplot, if it is irrelevant to the story or simply bogs the story down. Rewrites are often about killing our darlings, or at least asking 'Do you deserve to live?'

So far in this second rewrite, I have done very little killing. I have mostly been changing content as the story changed, massaging characters, and adding bits to fill in plot gaps or smooth over transitions. On third rewrite I will have to be more brutal.

The experience on Sunday night was a reading of my recently published THE DEVIL TO PAY at a zoom event as part of the City of Hamilton's LitLive series. There were five writers and one musician. Four of the writers were poets, all different but terrific and avant-garde, and then there was me, inserted into the middle of the evening. Each of us was given twelve minutes in which to read. I always find selecting a passage to read very challenging. I don't want to spend half the time explaining the set-up, so usually start near the beginning. But a good reading should stand alone in some way, be captivating and dramatic, and make the reader want to hear more (possibly even buy the book!). Unless the writer is a masterful storyteller and can infuse the reading with a theatrical edge, most readings longer than five minutes will put the listener to sleep. Reading for twelve minutes might put them in a coma. But no one wants to listen to seven rambling minutes of set-up - why I wrote this book, who each character is, blah, blah...

Instead, I decided on two minutes of set-up and then two shorter readings of roughly five minutes each. But a reading should also start a key point and end with a dramatic question, at least implied. What next? That's a challenge.

I found two possible scenes, both longer than five minutes, printed them out, and began to slash mercilessly to preserve the meat of the scene without any of the additional but not strictly necessary colour. Each word, phrase, and indeed paragraph was subjected to the questions 'Do I need you?' 'Will the listener understand what's going on without you?' And most importantly 'Will the dramatic impact be as powerful?'

With those questions in mind, the culling was actually easy. I knew it wasn't permanent. These words still existed in the original text and in the published book. They were just shut out for this event. But interestingly, as I read each of those edited scenes aloud at the Zoom event, I realized they sounded pretty good as they were and the audience, knowing no better, seemed caught up in the story. Somehow, listening to myself aloud, I had a better sense of what bogged the story down and what energized it.

So I realized, part of third rewrites will be to read aloud, or at least to imagine how it sounds, all 350 pages of the book and to ruthlessly cut out the superfluous. But reading aloud or listening is different than reading privately. Some readers skim effortlessly over the sentences and paragraphs that don't interest them and skip down to the next exciting bit. However, others like to read slowly, savouring the imagery and the language that helps to set the mood and enrich the backdrop. The former likes the 'lean, mean, just the facts, ma'am' style of writing, whereas the latter likes more atmosphere and complexity. They don't like 'talking heads'; they want to picture the scene, feel the mood, and know what the characters are doing and thinking as they talk.

Getting the balance right is tricky, and it's clear you can't please everybody. But asking the question 'Do I really need you?' is certainly a useful exercise. 

A related part of this Sunday experience was listening to the poets. I'm a storyteller, not a poet, and although I try to be precise, concise, and vivid in the words I choose, we storytellers have a lot to learn from poets about creating word images that capture impressions, thoughts, and feelings in the most powerful way. This is not a new lesson for me, but it was worth reminding myself. I will keep it in mind as I do this culling. Not only will I ask myself 'Do I really need you?' but also "Is there a briefer and more powerful way to say the same thing?' 

When I'm done all this soul-searching, let's hope I don't find myself five thousand words short on my word count!

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