Raise your hand if you’ve heard the following phrase:
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve certainly come across this doozy of a saying. You may even think you know what it means. But until you’re faced with having to drastically reduce the word count of your manuscript, you’ve only scratched the surface.
As writers, we like to make sure the proper people get credited. It can be difficult with ubiquitous quotes such as “kill your darlings”, but in this case we have some pretty good information.
In an article titled Kill Your Darlings
by Lesley L. Smith, over at Seton Hill Writers
, I was pleased to discover that the original phrase is actually “Murder your darlings”, and it was coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1916 publication “On the Art of Writing”. Click the “Kill Your Darlings” link in this paragraph for the article. And while you’re there, check out the blog. It’s a great one!
What Are Darlings?
I wish I could offer you a formula, but I can’t. I can, however, give you a tried and true method of discovering them: enlist the aid of one or more reliable beta readers.
But what do I mean by reliable?
It’s simple: a reliable beta reader is a person who is not afraid of telling you the truth of their experience of your work. If you don’t have one of these people in your life, by all means drop whatever you are doing and find one. Their impact on your craft is vital to your improvement and ultimate success as a writer.
A good beta reader is going to point out bits and pieces (perhaps even entire sections, chapters, or characters) that aren’t working. You’re going to re-read the indicated sections, and your gut reaction is going to be “Not just no but hell no! I’m not cutting it!”
Congratulations, you just discovered your first darling.
You may come across a section (as I did in Necromancer Awakening
) that is nothing more than a setup for a punchline that isn’t even particularly funny. Sure, I
giggled at my own cleverness. (After all, I’m incredibly
witty. And I should know…I laugh at all my own jokes.) That was my first sign I was onto something that needed to go.
How Do I Prepare For The Killing?
First and foremost, gain distance from your work. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you’re still at a point where you feel as if every word you’ve written is sacrosanct, then you’re just not ready to begin editing.
Write hot, but edit cold.
I often take several weeks away from my manuscript to gain the necessary distance. When I come back to my work, I want the words to feel and taste as if they’d been written by someone else. When I began the task of trimming Necromancer Awakening
down from 180k words, I found myself losing a hundred words here, a hundred words there, and so on. After a complete cycle I managed to get down to the high 160s. Unacceptable, and I knew it.
So I stepped away for several months. There was no other way. I had no idea how I was going to cut another blessed word and manage to keep my story intact. And that is precisely how I knew I wasn’t ready to do it. I worked on other projects, played some video games, and even took a much-needed family vacation before returning to the manuscript. When I sat back down at the keyboard, the work had an alien feel to it. I was ready.
I developed a killer instinct for words that needed to die. I cackled with sinister glee whenever I’d come across an entire paragraph, section, or chapter that could be tossed out. I laughed maniacally when I discovered a character that could be cut.
When I emerged on the other side of the revision, I had wrestled a 180k word manuscript down to 111k words. I had finally discovered what the heart of my story was, and it became stronger as a result.
[UPDATE 05/10/2014] I’m proud to announce that in the month since it’s publication, Necromancer Awakening has been on more than 4 different bestseller lists for the last 3 weeks!
But you can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken in the first place. You can’t know it’s broken until it’s pointed out to you. And you won’t believe the people who are pointing it out to you until you gain the necessary distance and objectivity.
So get to it! Kill those darlings!
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Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening.
Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.
Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.
He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.