This month, as I’m working on polishing my manuscript in preparation for Pitch Wars, I wanted to talk about something all writers struggle with, and that’s being ruthless in the editing process.
What does it mean to kill your darlings?
We’ve all heard the phrase “kill your darlings”, whether you came across it while reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, or you’ve seen it used in the online writing community. There’s even a film with Daniel Radcliffe as poet Allen Ginsberg, who has been attributed (amongst many others) with inventing the saying, called (of course) Kill Your Darlings.
The basic message is that, during the editing process, writers should cut their favourite and most self-indulgent passages for the betterment of their manuscript. It’s a tough and painful lesson all writers learn when they come to revision time. First drafts are almost never good enough for publication, and even the most famous authors rewrote their works several times before sharing them with the world. Take a look at this post, How many drafts does it take to finish a novel? to see how many times some authors rewrite!
A bit of background…
For those of you who might not know, I finished my first novel recently and plan to submit it to Pitch Wars next month. I wrote most of the first draft during NaNoWriMo 2016, and finished draft two in May. Since then, it’s been out with several beta readers who all really liked the story and gave me a few comments and suggestions which I’ve worked on incorporating into the text. (Check out my previous Author Toolbox post on the ABCs of beta readers).
My beta readers, however, are not fellow writers. They’re friends who love reading and who I trust to give me their honest opinion, but they aren’t familiar with the craft of writing.
Preparing for Pitch Wars
In the run up to Pitch Wars, a raffle was hosted by last year’s mentees – writers who got picked by the 2016 mentors – offering to work with this year’s hopefuls on their competition entry, which comprises the first ten pages of your manuscript and a query letter. I entered the raffle and was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the winners, meaning the amazing Kristen Clouthier would take a look at my pages and query and give me her expert opinion on what I could do to improve them, and therefore increase my chances of getting chosen by a mentor next month.
I pinged off my pages and waited patiently (lies, I was so nervous and anxious!) for Kristen’s reply and her suggested edits. She replied really quickly with a few questions to give her a better idea of my MS and a couple of thoughts she’d had whilst reading. Her advice was to cut the opening scenes and start the story later, as I had started it too early and the inciting incident was several chapters in. She was absolutely right and I think I’d known that all along, having worried my beta readers would find the start boring (it’s a fantasy novel with no fantastical elements for several chapters, what was I thinking?).
Kristen recommended I cut everything up until the action really starts, and then send her my new first ten pages so she could critique those instead. I set about chopping a good 8k words off the beginning of my book, and do you know what? It didn’t even hurt. If that isn’t a sign that Kristen was completely right and my story started way too soon, then I don’t know what is. I polished up those opening pages, readding some of the important information from the cut segment, and sent them off. Kristen loved the new opening, and even though it still needs work and lots of spit and polish, we both agreed it was definitely the right place to start the story.
My dead darling
OK, I lied, one part did hurt, but I knew it was the right thing to do. Kristen said that she wouldn’t be surprised if someone down the road – a Pitch Wars mentor, or future agent – would ask me to cut the prologue. I wrote about my prologue here on my blog, you can even read the original, first draft version when you subscribe to my email list, and I discussed the pros and cons of prologues and reasons why they’re so controversial amongst writers and editors. That didn’t stop me writing it and including it in my manuscript. But, as Kristen said, it was really just a huge spoiler for everything that happens later in the book, so I knew that, with the new beginning being more action packed and gripping, it had to go.
The five stages of loss
So, I killed my darling, I cut my prologue. I saved a copy of my original MS so I can keep it for posterity, and to see how far it has come by the time it gets published, and maybe that took the sting out of removing the prologue and first three chapters. I didn’t delete them and send them into the void, I can still refer to them and use snippets here and there throughout the rest of my MS.
If your manuscript is finished and you’re ready to start the revision process, here are five steps to killing your darlings:
- Give your writing to beta readers. You can reread your work yourself, but the bits that need to go tend to be the writer’s favourites. When your betas tell you something didn’t work for them, or it felt clunky and unclear, believe them.
- Cut the word/phrase/passage and paste it into a new document, or wherever you keep snippets for yourself. Don’t just hit delete and erase it forever, you never know when you might be able to reuse at least some part of your cut segment.
- You now need to fill the gaping hole you’ve created. This will probably either be with a completely reworded version of the original, or a sentence or two that smoothly transitions the reader into the next part of the story. Read the couple of pages before your MS’s new hole to immerse yourself in that part of the story.
- Write. Don’t worry that you might not be able to come up with something as brilliant as your dead darling, all of your words come out of the same person, good or bad, and you will write wonderful words again.
- Go back to step 1, give the new version to your beta readers and see if they prefer it. If they’re happy, you’re good to go.
Writing is a very personal experience, but ultimately your writing needs to be aimed at your readers and not just an exercise in self-indulgence. That’s what diaries are for. Be brave and ruthless in your editing, and try not to take it personally when readers don’t connect with your favourite passages. Kill all your darlings, and your novel will be the better for it, I promise.