Friday, June 5, 2015

How I Kill My Darlings

I’m going to assume that most of Middle Grade Minded’s readers have at least a passing familiarity with writing and books, and that most of you will recognize the ages-old reference in the title to trimming the fat from ones writing.  That also assumes, maybe foolishly, that no one is tapping out 9-1-1 on their cell phone right now with a shaky hand, filled with terror that my family is in some sort of dire peril.

The only peril they’re in is that I might forget to take the recycling out and can we please all agree that this shouldn’t be my job alone?

But enough of me. Let’s talk about revision, which is what I meant with the reference to killing those darlings. It’s a old adage about writing that I believe with all of my heart, regardless of who said it first.

The act of writing, of taking an idea and giving life to it with mere words, is a process that’s as individual as those of us who attempt it.  What works for me may not work for you. Heck, what works for me today may not even work for my next book.  With that in mind, then, there are exceedingly few generalities that I believe apply to every single writer who ever set a troll-topped pencil to a sheet of lined paper.  Revision, though, is the exception. When it comes to that, there is but one hard, inescapable truth: as a writer, you will never escape the need to revise your work.

When I wrote my first novel, an adult fantasy horror called Famine, I thought I’d be smart. I’d take my time and go over every word I’d written every day, slicing, dicing, and julienning the story in such a way that when the draft was done, most (if not all) of my revising would be In. The. Bag.

Fast forward Slow, excrutiating trudge to 18 months later, and I had a finished novel.  But then I had to reorganize a bunch of it, and even after, it was still a sloppy mess. So much so that I had to make two more passes before I was comfortable letting anyone else look it, lest they think I had the reading comprehension and writing ability of a 9 month-old water-borne toad.

When I started my second novel, Longshots, a MG Sci-Fi adventure, I impressed myself and others (okay, mostly just myself) by using what I’d learned from Famine to make things easier on myself. It was also a NaNoWriMo novel, which means constantly re-sculpting the words I’d just written would work about as well as trying to build a LEGO Death Star with mashed potatoes and Thanksgiving stuffing. So I gritted my teeth, opened up Google Docs, and hammered out 48,000 words without bothering to make sure they were any sort of recognizable English, be it American, British, Olde, or what have you.

Believe it or not, Longshot ended up needed not even half the revision time that Famine had taken, and a few months later I landed my agent with it.

Putting the lessons those two books taught me together, I’ve adopted the following five steps, which have become the My Way of novel revisions.

  1. Shut Up and Wait. Type “The End”, save my document, and go fishing, sailing, baking, canoodling, or, (more likely) napping for, at minimum, two weeks.  A month is probably better, but sometimes I’m not that patient. This is called a “cooling off” period. It’s at least twice as awesome as a “sleeping it off” period, because after cooling, you’re excited to see your work again and also not harboring a  headache that could only be the fault of a wrathful demon. Well, that is, until you actually start reading your work back, and then you realize you’d rather take the demon headache.
  2. The Big Sweep. I take my manuscript out of the drawer and sharpen my pencils, and then go page-by-page, paragraph-by-paragraph, sentence-by-sentence and fix whatever feels broken. Does every paragraph say something new and unique, or can it be cut? Does every sentence stand on it’s on or is it redundant? Whatever isn’t necessary gets the machete. Then I consider the dialog and all the character’s traits. Are they speaking and acting like that character should? You know, because it’s important you don’t write a scene where Batman crashes into a room with a fully automatic rifle, and then guns down everyone inside while singing show tunes. I’ll scrutinize and polish every page until I’m happy with it.
  3. Auxiliary Sweeps: Death to Adverbs and Overuses! It’s time for the long, tedious, exhaustive searches for words that end in “ly”, the overuse of “somehow”, “just”, or “though”. Usually I have a text statistics tool look the manuscript over for me and tell me if something other than “a” or “the” is the most commonly used word in the draft.
  4. Performance For One: I read the manuscript again, out loud, to myself.  I cannot stress enough how much this helps to shine a beacon of red light on words that don’t “ring”" true.
  5. Beta Readers. I have two or three beta readers that I would trust with the keys to my house, the future of my children, or even my beating, dripping, disgusting heart, should it for some reason find its way outside my chest cavity.  They get copies of the manuscript next. At which point, I scurry off to bide my time thinking of The Next Project. Which is to say, I go binge watch some shows on Netflix while stress eating Smartpop laced with M&Ms.  Before long, they (the beta readers, not the M&Ms) invariably have comments and suggestions when they finish, which I then weigh and incorporate as necessary. But they’re pretty smart people who read a lot, so I rarely ignore anything without a rock solid explanation of why things needs to stay the same.
  6. Getting Tweaked for Class Pictures. When I was a kid, no matter how perfectly prepared I was for picture day at school, my mom could always find something that needed a bit of a nip or tuck.  My collar would be off or my glasses would be dirty, sometimes my cowlick was unruly and in desperate need of a tamping down. My manuscripts are no different. Just when I think they’re ready, I’ll think of a sequence that could be stream-lined or a better line of dialog than the one I had used. I’ll make sure the chapter titles are margined properly, the cover sheet is clean and accurate, and the Table of Contents looks just the way I expect. When all of that’s done…
  7. You’ve Got Mail: I click send and push that manuscript out into the world, where, with any luck, someone will fall in love with it as much as I have.

As I said before, though, the process of writing a novel is an individual as a snowflake. Okay, I didn’t say that exactly, but I same something along those lines. The point is that while My Patented 5 Step Method works for me, it may not be the best way for you get your best work onto the page. It’s also actually 7 steps, but we’re just going to pretend math isn’t important.

As luck would have it, I’ve got a manuscript in a drawer right now, waiting for some a raging torrent of red ink. So, Good luck with your own manuscripts, and more importantly, your revisions. Because remember, writing is rewriting, and those darlings aren’t just going to off themselves.

Pud’n

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