Wednesday, April 11, 2012

On Killing Your Darlings, the Continued Importance of IMPARTIAL Editors, and How I Just Pulled the Trigger

"Killing Your Darlings."

No one knows for sure what literary figure said this, but if you're a writer, you're probably intimately familiar with the phrase. Or, you should be.  Should've at least wrestled with it at one time or another.

The idea is this: that in the processes of crafting a story, writers become very attached to a scene, description, bit of exposition, a character, paragraph or even a whole CHAPTER that they realize, upon completion of their magnum opus, they don't need.  Not only do they not need it, said "darling" either doesn't advance the story at all...or, even worse, impedes it.

So, the necessity to "kill your darlings".  Obviously, as writers, we never press delete - no matter how bad it is - we cut stuff out and paste it into a "junk file" for future reference (or at least I do).  But the important point here is forcing yourself to take a chainsaw to your story, cut those darlings out. To be as objective as possible.

And again, this isn't about bowing to publisher pressure to remove things from your story.  This is - I believe - a sign of growth on the part of a writer.  A sign that they're well read, have studied the craft, and can just tell at the end of a project where the chaff is.  Where to judiciously, objectively - not without cringing, mind you - apply that much needed chainsaw.

 However, this again highlights the absolute necessity - at least for us younger writers, still feeling our way through the craft, still discovering our voices and style - for an impartial editor. And I DON'T mean an editor you hire personally.  I've seen lots of writers who self-publish - or, even worse yet, writers who write for the small press - who hire their OWN editor, then claim their manuscript is perfect, in no need of editing by the publisher.

WRONG. Because no matter how you spin it, the bottom line is that you're paying that editor. And they know it, even if only on subconscious level.  What's really needed is an editor that possesses two qualities:

1. is working for the publisher and is separate from the writers' whims
2. has an uncanny sense of what makes a good story; even better, understands what the author is trying to do, and helps that author achieve it through refining their voice

Granted - #2 can be a rare quality.  Self-publishing manifestos abound with stories of horrible editors who "just didn't understand my story!"  But I'm not getting into that debate again today.  Bottom line; a writer who knows their stuff eventually develops the ability to highlight their darlings and kill them; or, develops the ability to listen to good editors who suggest killing their darlings.

And recently, I just "killed a darling".  Yesterday, actually.

So, I'm writing a novella.  Have the opportunity to pitch it to a pretty good publisher.  And it's been going really well.  But two days ago I had a brainstorm about a device I wanted  to use.  Spent the next three days frantically writing it down and fleshing it out.

And the entire time, a little voice kept whispering in the back of my head: "I dunno. This might be a bit overdone.  Are you sure...?"  But I ignored that voice, plunged on, drafted it several times, typed in 12 extra pages.

Then decided yesterday evening not to use most of it.  Because by the end, when I stepped back - keeping in mind this is an excellent opportunity for me - I realized what I'd done.  I'd pasted something into the story that I really WANTED to be there.  But in the end, it didn't work.  In fact, it jarred pretty badly with the rest of the story.

I didn't have to toss the whole thing.  But I realized most of it had to go.  I had to "kill some darlings".  And it didn't even hurt. Was actually quite satisfying.  Because even though I didn't WANT  to get rid of those parts?

It felt right.  Felt like the decision of a mature writer who knows the story is boss, not me.  Which, of course, is the ultimate goal...