Saturday, August 21, 2010

Killing Your Darlings

Supposedly it was William Faulkner who first coined the phrase “kill your darlings”.  It is a vivid image, one designed to convey the emotional intensity that occurs while editing your work. 

Most first drafts suck.  Buried in the trash are the occasional gems.   Sentences and paragraphs that the writer loves.  Turns of phrases, character moments, little jokes and lushly written imagery.

But when writing turns to editing, nothing is safe or sacred.  Sentences that sparkle are the ones you want to save.  But sometime they just don’t fit.  They slow a scene down, or make no sense without including garbage you need to eliminate.

Inevitably, a good editor must delete sentences they love, paragraph they adore, and even characters they desperately want to keep.

The first time this happens is traumatic.   For me, my third chapter is the one which felt like a knife fight.  To this day if I need to make major modifications to something, I say to myself, “well, it can’t be as bad as when I edited chapter three”.  So far that remains a true statement.

I sometimes save parts of scenes, ones I like most, but which simply must go.  I copy them out and put them somewhere where I can find them.  The idea is that, someday, I may want to mine those scenes for ideas or phrases. 

The truth is I almost never look at those saved excerpts again.  More and more, I rewrite scenes from scratch, deleting whole pages of existing material.  What remains of the original text is worked into new material as appropriate.   

The result is better scenes, better chapters, and a stronger work. 

Yes there will be future edits, and more darlings will no doubt die.   But the result is a story I believe is objectively better.   It is worth a few (hundred? thousand?) deleted sentences to achieve that goal.

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