If you’ve been a writer for any period of time longer than “I just started ten minutes ago”, chances are you’ve done some background reading on the craft and its processes. When you do that, certain things become absolutely apparent right away. One of the biggest is that writing, no matter what method you use for drafting, success hinges on editing.
Let me say that again: success hinges on editing. And not, like, fixing typos and checking commas, but bold, brave editing that displays the kind of stalwart courage usually found in a MG protagonist.
Like it or not, your first draft isn’t going to be the Best Draft It Could Become. Your masterpiece is going to have be revised. And even if you’ve only done as little reading as your subconscious thinks you did when studying for that chemistry final it keeps dredging up in the nightmare about taking your finals while naked, late for class, and without lunch, odds are pretty good that you’ve come across the phrase “kill your darlings”.
Sooner or later, you’re going to have to kill your darlings. Every writer faces it.
To be honest, when I first heard the phrase, I was terrified. I thought it meant I was going to have to make a regular practice of murdering the characters I was most smitten with. And sometimes, it does mean that, but, then, when I first started writing, I was reading Harry Potter and George R. R. Martin, and watching shows by Joss Whedon, so you can forgive me for assuming that Everyone Must Die was the new norm.
Turns out I was just influenced by a host of merciless, soul-tormenting creators with a penchant for characterization that was equal parts genius and ruthless.
Which, you know, I’m still scarred, but I suspect we’ve all been there.
The good news is, I had it all wrong! Killing your darlings isn’t (necessarily) about luring characters into dark alleyways and stabbing them repeatedly. No, murdering your darlings means that to make that book the best it can, be, you’re going to have to take something you’ve written and are positively in love with and hack away at it like you’re wintering at the Overlook Hotel, whether it’s a particular turn of phrase, an intricate, three-paragraph description of the way light hits a set of curtains in the library, or a plot sequence that plays out in your mind like that scene in slow motion The Matrix.
You remember, the one with all the shooting?
Now, being endlessly puffed up by my own ego like a balloon rides a warm draft, I’ve spent most of my fledgling writing career pretty certain that the practice of darling hatchet-ry was something other writers had to deal with, but not me. Because, see, I always have an outline. Outlines offer insurance against the sort of barbaric, aimless drafting though the dark, twisty tunnels of your imagination.
My road map—not to mention my immeasurable genius!—would undoubtedly save me such hassles.
Yeah, no. Sorry, buttercup. Turns out my staggering genius is much more like stumbling, and the rules of good editing apply to even me. Which means that sometimes I’m going to write stuff I love that Just. Doesn’t. Work. And no matter how I might hope, pray, push, prod, prune, and tweak it, there’s no shoving my square-shaped hunk of words into a manuscript with circle-shaped holes.
Which is exactly what I found out this week while working on my latest MG novel.
I should have seen it coming to be honest. Normally, I work fast, both when drafting and editing. When I write, I sprint, and tend to finish a MG draft in a month to 6 weeks, and then revise it enough for beta readers in another month. Lots of different things happen after that and the timetable varies depending on the project, but before my current project, I’ve dependably delivered books to test readers in three months.
This one, on the the other hand, has been dragging for more six and I’m still not finished. I’m in love with the premise of it more than I can describe, but the plot sputtered out of me like a certain famous ketchup rather than pouring out in a constant flow like with the other books I’ve written. And both while drafting and now in revisions, I’ve found myself tiptoeing up to certain point and then coming to a dawdling standstill, dragging my feet like a six year old forced dress up for family portraits.
That point, the hitch in my new novel, was a plot device I thought would be Really Cool to Read. Full of action and humor, my readers would be taken in by the awe and wonder of it, and it would be the highlight of the whole novel. Heralds would sing my praises and awards bearing my name would someday be given in honor of this sequence.
Except, um, not so much. Turns out that was as much a figment of my imagination as the time I thought I could run past my dad after bedtime so fast that he wouldn’t see me. Spoiler alert: he could totally see me.
But what I couldn’t see was that I wasn’t doing myself any favors. I needed to be like the characters I want in my MG adventures: bold, brave, and sometimes even ruthless.
Earlier this week, then, I realized what had happened. My book wasn’t working because it was infected with something that needed cutting out. I had myself a dreaded darling, and it desperately needed killing.
So Wednesday night I poured myself a large, bold dose of liquid courage (well, espresso) and took a machete the scenes that I once hoped would be so wonderful.
Afterwards, after I’d hacked them out and stitched the pieces back together, I felt like my novel was ready to run. No more stalling, no more dragging my feet. It’s ready now, rarin’ to go.
Heck, it might even be able to run so fast you can’t see it.
So, yes, Virginia, everyone has a Shiny Darling Idea sometimes. When you find yours, don’t be afraid. Seek out the bold courage that kids so often embody and do what must be done.
I promise you won’t even want to look back.