Killing the Darlings

“In writing, you must kill your darlings.” –William Faulkner

So, I’ve been making progress on the first phase of editing on Princesses In SPACE!!! The Sequel to Get Equal (not the actual title). It’s going to be tough making my goal of having a second draft ready to go by the Super Bowl, but you never know. I took this photo the other day to show how the manuscript is coming:

The pages on the right are the ones I haven’t marked up yet; as of this writing I have less than 100 pages to go. And on Instagram, fellow writer Anya Monroe asked about my general editing process, so here’s what I do:

1. Finish the first draft. I’m not kidding, but this is part of the process. I do very little editing along the way. In general, I will only go back and make a change if it’s for a structural reason in the story itself. Examples include realizing that I’ve made a Huge Mistake and have literally gone off the rails, or it might be that I’ve just had a really nifty plot twist pop into my head, which I can’t resist — but then, I have to go back and add something to set it up. If I’m going to suddenly have a gun go off late in the book, I have to put it on the mantelpiece early on. Other than that, however, I never edit as I go.

But, as I finish, I will generally have a few ideas as to what needs to be fixed or changed already. These I will write down in a notepad or in my journal, and then I print the manuscript out and…do nothing with it for at least three months, if not more.

The “fallow” period is key to me. I have to get distance from the story and the universe, freshen my gaze, and let it roll about my subconscious while I switch gears and do something else. In this case, I wrote GhostCop‘s first draft and started working on Lighthouse Boy‘s first draft.

2. At the appointed time, I get out the manuscript and start reading it. This I do with the following at hand: several red pens, my note-pad, and post-it notes. As I go, I make markings in the book with the red pen:

What am I marking up? Awkward wording, for one thing. Redundant wording — this happens a lot in my writing; I’m not sure why, but I find that I very often say the same things over and over again, as if I’m afraid the readers won’t get it without the repetition (or, maybe when I write the passage, I can’t remember that I said the same thing the day before). Anyway, I’ve noticed that I really get repetitive at times.

I look for opportunities to tighten my prose. I’m never going to be Hemingway, mind you — this particular book I’m working on is over 180,000 words in its first draft — but I’m looking to cut it down to at least 160K words, if not fewer. Will I get there? I don’t know, but we’ll see.

I also look for bad dialog, or places where the pacing could be improved, or where things are just off. Just the other day I cut out a passage that seemed like a good idea when I wrote it, but now bugs the living hell out of me. I had one of my characters lash out at someone she loves in a moment of stress, and while it made sense to do that when I wrote it, reading it now, I just found myself thinking, “Wow, she’s being a whiny turd right there.”

This brings me to the quote with which I open this post, the famous advice to writers that they must “Kill their darlings”. The idea is that all writers produce prose that they love but doesn’t really serve the book or story, and these such passages must be stricken from the record, no matter how much the author loves them. Oddly, though…well, maybe it sounds arrogant, but I rather like my darlings, which is why they’re my darlings in the first place. So what do I do? I go through the book and kill everything that is not a darling. I kill the ugly and the troll-like; I strike out the annoying and the repetitive. Basically, I do what Stephen King suggests and remove everything from the story that is not the story.

Or, at least that’s what I try to do.

Oh, the post-it notes? Those are for if I need to add copy to any particular page, like rewrite an entire passage or stick in a line or something like that. It’s easier for me to write what I’m inserting on a post-it note and stick it on the page where it goes, with the word INSERT in the body of the page at the place where the new material is to be placed. I try to avoid adding material. I’m all about subtraction at this phase, but it does happen — and I know there’s a big one coming toward the end of the book, because I want the climactic action sequence to go a completely different way than what I had originally written.

3. At this point, hopefully I’ve got a decent book in hand! Then the book goes to beta-readers, who read it and tell me what works and what doesn’t. I always miss some awkward prose, or some other important stuff. For instance, I tend to be very light in my physical descriptions of characters, and make do with just a couple key things about them. But in the last book, one of my readers pointed out that I never gave any description of a particular character at all. Oops!

Anyway, once I have their feedback in hand, I go through the book again — on the computer this time, not red-penning the manuscript — and make changes that I hope strengthen things.

4. I’ve not gone past the last step yet, although I will with Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title), as I start moving toward self-publication. I’ll make another run through the book, tightening it up even more and making any changes that are desperately called for. I don’t know yet if I’ll have to change anything to make that book line up more precisely with its forthcoming sequel, but I do have a list of backstory details to fix so everything agrees in the end.

5. And as in all things at Casa Jaquandor, the process is both enhanced and delayed by cats.

The cats don’t really help, actually. But they’re here, so, that’s that.

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4 Responses to Killing the Darlings

  1. SK Waller says:

    Wow! A lot of insight here, and some great tips. Thanks!

  2. Roger Owen Green says:

    I'll say it again:
    1. Good for you, and
    2. I don't have the patience or focus.

  3. SK Waller says:

    I'd like to add that as a self-published author you really need another pair of eyes to read your final draft for typos–not content or anything on the subjective level. It's damned near impossible to catch all of those things yourself. I hate when I find errors after publishing; I'd give ANYthing to have a final reader.

    Trust is the main thing. I secured a final reader for my book, but while making the changes, I found she'd missed a whole lot.

    Say, Data would be ideal! He's fast and concise, and there would be no emotions or value judgments involved!

  4. anya* says:

    What a great post— thank you for indulging my curiosity! It is fascinating to learn other writers process of getting their manuscript in tip-top shape. Like you I try to be as minimal as possible in my first draft and just focus on getting it done.
    Good luck with self publishing!

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