Ninth element in this series: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision
(Please read the Introduction, if you haven’t already.)
KILL YOUR DARLINGS
“Kill your darlings” does not mean you have to kill off your favorite characters (although it may). This refers to the fact that writers fall in love with what they have written and cannot bear the thought of deleting it, even if those passages are not needed to tell the story.
Ask yourself, what’s the story reason for including this in the book? Does it provide a plot point, an inciting incident? Does it reveal important information to the reader? Does it reveal character? Does it reveal place or purpose? If you have no good reason other than “I love it,” then kill it.
The most common instances I see are extraneous descriptions or character bios; e.g., the tan stucco building, or character backgrounds that read like obituaries; also, author asides: the author either explains what just happened or comments on what just happened, as I described in Author Intrusion.
Example: Joe punched a hole in the wall with his fist. He was very angry.
And my thought, as an editor, is: No shit. Then I kill that darling:
He was very angry.
My typical responses to this are:
- Self-evident; the reader is way ahead of you; delete “He was very angry. ” Or: Redundant; delete. Or: Repetitious; delete.
- Show, don’t tell.
- Reveal, don’t tell.
The author could have another character say: “Joe, why are you so angry? Did something happen?” Then Joe reveals what’s bothering him.
Another common instance is an author trying to tidy things up at the end of a chapter, as if it were a standalone short story. However, this all too often deflates or dilutes the suspense or tension of the final action or dialogue in that scene or chapter. My most common response to this is: Unnecessary; author intrusion; delete. Think “cliffhanger.”
Research: Some writers try to include most, if not all, of the research material they uncovered. Don’t. Rule of thumb: leave out 90 percent. Yes, you learned some interesting facts while researching an event or place or historical figure, but it should be relevant to the story; only include what’s necessary for moving the story forward.
Every book I see can be tightened up. An early draft of my memoir totaled 150,000 words. I cut it by more than a third to 95,000 words. I also rewrote the first chapter 36 times. As the saying goes: Writing is rewriting.
Jennifer Redmond, former editor-in-chief at Sunbelt Publications, told me that she, on average, cut 10 percent out of most of the books she edited.
I worked with two co-authors writing a narrative nonfiction account of a criminal investigation; their first draft totaled 225,000 words. Through a lot of painful cutting and rewriting (over a period of four years) we reduced that by more than half to 110,000 words.
Their problem: They included all of their research, much of which was redundant or irrelevant to their story; i.e., they had no story reason for including that information. Nor could they kill their darlings—so I did the killing for them.
I see the same issue in historical fiction or stories that have a technical subject matter. You probably don’t need to spend 20 pages describing how to render whale blubber.
Kill your darlings.
Tenth in the series: Final Words