Murdering Darlings

Sorry I haven’t been around for the past couple of weeks. I’d thought  Hellforged was ready to go to the copyeditor, but my editor returned the manuscript to me. Revisions had made it too long, and I needed to cut several thousand words.

Ouch.

My own fault, I know, for letting the word count swell. I was already aware that’s an issue for me when I revise, and I should keep a closer eye on it. But knowing it’s an issue doesn’t make things any easier when it’s time to fire up the chainsaw and get to work.

I didn’t just use a chainsaw. I took a two-pronged approach: looking for entire scenes I could cut (that’s chainsaw work) and doing another round of tigthening up (for that, I use a scalpel). Wielding a scalpel is easier, and it can be satisfying to replace a three-word phrase with one word. It’s lopping off whole scenes that’s painful.

In 1913 and 1914, author and literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch gave a series of lectures on writing at Oxford University. From one of these lectures came his famous advice, “Murder your darlings.” It’s a great metaphor, a vivid reminder not to fall in love with your own prose. Because if you fall in love with an image or a scene or (sometimes) a character, you run the risk of losing sight of your story.

Arthur Quiller-Couch: "Murder those darlings!"

As I worked my way through the manuscript, I constantly asked myself, “Does this scene advance the plot or develop the characters?” If the answer was, “Not really,” out it went. Then I went through a second time, looking for smaller units to prune out—a paragraph of description here, a few wandering lines of dialogue there. And, of course, I had to make sure the final version reads smoothly, making sure there were no scars left where I’d hacked things out.

The result? Most of what I lost was color: moments of humor, glimpses that fill out the background Vicky’s world. What I gained was a tighter story. As much as I hated to see some of those scenes go, the book’s better for it.

But darlings are darlings, and I didn’t have the heart to murder them. Instead, they’re hidden away on my hard drive. Maybe I’ll rework some of them for future stories, or maybe they’ll just enjoy their retirement.

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About nancyholzner


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