Oh, lovely blog. I’ve let you down. I missed the past few weeks of blog posts, thanks to a crazy hectic summer and a few too many hours in the editing den! Fortunately, I’m on the other side, feeling better than ever. It seems only fitting to post about one of my favorite revision rules.
There’s an old cliche among writers that in editing, you must “kill your darlings.” But this one is cliched for a reason: it’s tried and true.
“But Laura,” you say, widening your puppy dog eyes, “why would you want me to cut out the very best parts of my story?”
Aha. That’s where you’re wrong. I don’t want you to gut all your best work. “Kill your darlings,” instead, should be taken to mean that you can’t let yourself get so attached to something lovely that you can’t change the story if necessary. I learned this the hard way through way too many rounds of edits on a manuscript. If I’d been a little bit better with this rule from the get go, I could have streamlined my revision process by a ton. Instead, I sort of killed my darlings a draft or two at a time. So, terribly inefficient for me, but great for the purpose of this blog post! Let’s break down the ways to “kill your darlings,” one type of shining darling at a time.
1) The Prose Darlings
Oh, the prose darlings. These are the flowing stanzas. The artful metaphors. The lush descriptions. Basically, these are those lines that are so perfect and powerful you want to get them tattooed on your body. And they can be really hard to get rid of (prose darlings, not tattoos. But those too).
Consider an early draft of my aforementioned manuscript. It bounced around between a whopping four points of view, which can be totally awesome, but in this case, totally wasn’t. Two of these points of view were really unnecessary, and made the compelling, zippy plot going on in the other two POVs really lag. So why did I keep them?
Everyone kept telling me they were so dang pretty. When people read excerpts from those POVs, they loved them; when people read the whole novel, they found it too slow. I did not want to ditch those lovely points of view, but I had to. The story was so much tighter without them, even though involved cutting pretty much all my favorite prose darlings.
Killing prose darlings is all about confidence. You have to be confident that you can and will write something every bit as beautiful as that darling again. In my case, it was all about bringing the same voice and beauty from the chunks I deleted to the remaining POVs. And the story is so much better for it.
2) The Character Darlings
A great lesson I learned while revising: NO LAURA. YOU DON’T NEED THAT MANY CHARACTERS.
But, but, but… It makes this world so much more vivid. And colorful. And real…
So you’re saying I don’t need the main character to have four brothers, eight coworkers, seven friends, four other assorted family members, three enemies and thirty-nine other named but not even remotely important acquaintance characters?
Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Combine characters. Ditch characters. Do it mercilessly, if you have as sprawling of a cast as I did.
Here’s a good trick to figuring out whether you actually need all those characters. List out every named character in the book. Beside them, write how they are absolutely necessary to the plot. How does the protagonist need them? How do they propel the story forward? If multiple characters have the same reason for being there, combine them into one. If there’s anyone who doesn’t seem to have any purpose, get rid of them. Your story will thank you for it.
3) The Scaffolding Darlings
These are the darlings that have been with you since little baby draft number one. Maybe even since the story was a wee infant idea. And these were the ones I had to slash out in one of my later revisions.
This was the part where I sat down and thought, Do I really need to include all that backstory? Does this scene really need to take place? Does this character really need that stupid catch phrase? (No, no, and goodness, no.)
Through revision after revision, these plot/character elements stayed with you. And they were important, back in the day—they helped you develop your little baby draft into a moody adolescent draft. It hurts to kill them, because they’ve been with you so long, and they were such mighty inspirations, but it needs to be done.
4) The Plot Darlings
This was actually a super problematic one for me, in large part because I had done so many rounds of revisions. I had so many cool ideas all jam-packed into one story, but as I’d added and removed other pieces of the story, many of these plot elements got… well, jumbled, to say the least. It slowly started to no longer make sense why this character would have betrayed the others, why someone would have burned down that house twenty years ago, why there would be a ghost girl wandering around, not telling anyone her name. Yep, it was a bit of a mess.
I’d just worked so hard to force all these things together! All these cool plots from all these different drafts!
But that was exactly the problem. It was forced. And it felt forced, too. Not only that, but it was confusing. There were too many things to keep track of, too much foreshadowing that hinted at an unwritten sequel (because, of course, I had so many uber-nifty plot elements totally planned out).
Just get rid of them. Keep the plot tight. Don’t overcomplicate your story. Let it find its happy medium—interesting, not There’s no plot here, but not Why are their rabid elephants in the middle of the space station? either.
As grim as it is, “kill your darlings” is a wise bit of advice for us writers. And even though we might not like it, even though it can make us cry and stamp our little feet, it can make a world of difference for our manuscripts.