Killing Your Darlings

Nat Russo Editing, Revision, Word Count 34 Comments

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.

Origin

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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About Nat Russo

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.

Comments 34

  1. This is dead on. Great job in explaining it and illustrating with your own challenge. I re-tweeted it with a signal boost, and shared it to the writing community on G+ as a must read. Keep up the amazing work. 🙂

  2. It’s crazy, no matter how many times I hear this advice, I still have trouble implementing it in my own work occasionally. “Yes, oh beta reader of mine, you’re right there, and there, and there. But not THAT part. That part isn’t a ‘darling,’ really. It’s just a transcendental witticism that anybody with an ounce of sense should be able to appreciate.”

    1. Haha! I know the feeling. I’ve found the only way for me to get over it is to get a LOT of distance from the work. It’s usually times like that…times when I’m stubbornly hanging on…that I need to spend the most amount of time away from my manuscript.

  3. In 2010 I beta-read a book for someone I worked with. He appreciated my feedback and asked me to help him edit the book to make it suitable for the popular market. The next tow months is a shaggy-dog story worthy of several beers (which you haven’t proffered me). the last straw was when he refused to let me show him what the book would look like if I trimmed the FIFTY PAGES of fake mythology he stuck in right after the big action scene.

    So I dumped his project and wrote my own book. And that’s how an artist became a novelist.

    1. Ouch, haha 🙂

      It can be tough to be on the receiving end. When my beta reader gives me feedback leading to a change, my first reaction is usually to pout. I spend a few hours thinking about it, and 9 out of 10 times she’s right. The 10th time I’m wrong 🙂

  4. Excellent post. This is something I’ve had to learn how to do, and while often painful, the ms. is always better as a result! It’s the more courageous thing to hear criticism and, upon feeling that sting and that urge to become defensive, instead embracing it.

    I’ve found that whenever there’s that gut reaction of, “No! You’re wrong! Absolutely not, no way in hell!” that’s the moment one should listen most. Criticism that can be discarded is the kind that elicits little to no reaction at all; but criticism that should be listened to, and followed, often hurts to hear. For me, I’ve discovered being able to take that sort of criticism to heart is a skill that requires training, building up a thick skin. But the rewards are incredible! 🙂

    1. Dan…so much goodness in that comment! I want to shout it off the mountain top!

      The moment the criticism hurts the most is the moment you need to listen most! No truer words have ever been spoken. When my beta reader is telling me things I don’t want to hear, I know she’s right.

  5. I always take the attitude if I think it’s TERRIBLY clever, it’s probably on its way out. Sadly. And I have a ruthless ”is this moving the plot forward” stance. This means I am unable to do the ‘wrote a novel in 6 months’ thing. Sadly.

    1. I’m the same way, Carol. My process just takes longer than some people. Back in 2011, the 1st draft for my work-in-progress took 90 days to write. I just completed revisions (some 20+ partial rewrites and extensive line edits) about a week or two ago. Now I feel it’s actually ready to query, knowing that a publisher will undoubtedly recommend additional changes.

      In fairness, this current work reflects a bit of a learning curve that I won’t have in subsequent work, but I suspect at most I’ll be able to shave half the time off my next project.

    2. I should mention that I completed approximately 18 rewrites/line-by-line revisions before I even shared it with beta readers. I always want to make sure that before I share the work it’s as good as my *current skill level* allows. This way, any good suggestions I get from beta readers serve to increase my overall skill level, rather than just shine a light on places where I was lazy.

    1. Thanks, Jessica! I’m hoping future work won’t require I step away for months, but I guess we have to do whatever it takes to be true to the story.

  6. Something that has helped me is to have a Scrivener file that can be a home to darlings that, while they don’t work in a particular piece, might find a re-imagined home elsewhere. Say I have to cut the subplot with a witty shopkeeper. I really liked her character, but she was simply a subplot that needed to go. Maybe she can be a character in another story or maybe she needs to be reworked as a traveling merchant and given her own story.

    Same thing for a description, turn of phrase or such that I really like. It is much easier to cut if you know that your words aren’t disappearing into the spectral word of Deleted, but are rather set aside to potentially be used again. This doesn’t work for everything. Sometimes you just need to cut, cut, cut.

    1. I do this as well and have found it helpful. Like you said, the thought of cutting something is less scary when you know the words aren’t disappearing forever!

  7. Nat I do enjoy your posts very much. I find your point-of-view very insightful and apply much of what I read to my own work.

    For the most part, I write boring technical articles and sometimes contribute to Wikipedia. I’ve had a couple of story ideas floating in my head for some time and have recently begun work turning one into a story/screenplay. My original “darling” was too complicated and disrupted the storyline. At first, I was reluctant to scrap it, but doing so has allowed my main characters more ease of movement through the story “universe”.

    1. That’s wonderful to hear, Dan! Sometimes we become tied to our work and can’t imagine cutting it. Then, as you’ve experienced, once we talk ourselves into cutting what needs to be cut, our work becomes even stronger.

  8. I have very strong emotional ties to a piece of work I wrote for Wikipedia. The page has been subject to vandalism and I’ve found myself guarding it selfishly.

    Fiction is something new to me, and I’m taking a very free-form approach to it. More like a business project. That style works for me, but I’ve freely lifted your thoughts on “darlings” and interpreted your post on “magic” a bit more broadly. In my particular case, my darling went from being a plot point to being a conduit in which my characters move more easily.

    My enthusiasm is high today. If I can get a treatment done by the end of the week, I will register it with the Writers Guild. Maybe then I can talk more freely about what I am up to.

  9. Great article! Very good advice, especially when you talk about stepping back from the work and editing cold. That is important. On my current project, my edits were slow and miniscule right after I finished writing but with time, I’ve been able to start hacking out entire paragraphs, chapters even. Two characters were cut out in the process.

    I think a good way to realize if something is a darling is if it is slowing down the scene. For example, the characters I cut out caused detours from the plot and stopped the plot. I was having trouble justifying their existence because they were just noise. That is why they needed to go.

    1. I experienced the same thing. When I first started reducing my word count, I was extremely timid about it. Eventually, I was able to cut entire chapters and characters. I suppose I’ll discover on the 2nd book if this is how it is all the time, or if I’m over the learning curve for good 🙂

    1. The good news is that you don’t really have to. Under intellectual property laws in most countries, a copyright is granted immediately upon creation of the work. Registering the copyright with the appropriate authorities only becomes necessary when you find yourself in a position where you need to enforce the copyright. Most courts will require you register the copyright at that point.

      For Necromancer Awakening, I completed the 1st draft back in 2011, so technically it’s been copyrighted since then. This January, once I had selected a publication date, I submitted the completed manuscript for an official copyright, a process which takes 5-6 months. Sometime this summer I’ll receive a certificate with the official copyright.

      So, the short answer is “You don’t have to”. That being said, I recommend filing the official copyright when you’ve completed all of your structural edits. If you substantively change the structure of the work, you’ll need a new copyright. Fixing typos and wording issues is ok, however.

      The sad reality, however, is that unless you have a lot of money, you’ll probably be unable to enforce your copyright, if it ever comes to that.

  10. I have had to sue people in the past to protect my rights and reputation. I know how costly that is. I have talked to an LA based entertainment lawyer. He went through the ins and outs of the WGA, and why I SHOULD copyright. I think to NOT copyright a work is to invite infringement.

    I am currently writing a screenplay. While I am writing it primarily for fun, I am approaching it with professionalism. I do have contacts in Hollywood, and at the very least, I can get it pitched to people that can move it forward.

    I have send copies to trusted friends, but as much as I’m tempted to talk about my work, I’m reluctant until I have registered it in some way. I definitely do relive some past experiences.

  11. Good advice, Nat. And good to “meet” you (followed a re-tweet on Twitter).

    Walking away from your writing for a while is especially necessary, and something I find hard to do. I suppose it’s the excitement of getting it out there as quickly as possible, but it is always a good idea to wait and then come back to it, like you said, as if it had been written by someone else. Objectivity is everything.

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  13. When I hear the term, I think of killing off characters, either with in the story of removing them from the book altogether. I never thought of words as ‘darlings.’ Makes sense though.

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  14. Hi Nat; Just thought I’d say “hello” and tell you I’ve completed my first novel. I’m cleaning and editing now, and finding my zeal for writing has taken a beating. No matter – I will get it into
    shape and get it out there – wherever that may be. I know that silence and ignored may have identical meanings, especially in the police/mystery genre, so grant a word of hope or
    inspiration, if one is available. Thanks for listening.

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      Hi Bob!

      I know that feeling. When we’re deep into the first draft, we’re operating off pure passion and discovery (even for outliners, there’s a lot of discovery involved). Then it comes time for editing and we realize it’s purely technical work.

      But the cool thing about editing is that’s where the rubber really meets the road. That’s where we get the chance to work all of our author’s magic and look brilliant beyond compare (by highlighting symbolism and theme, by adding foreshadowing, etc). It’s the result of editing that makes the reader think “How the heck do they do that?” 🙂

      Keep it up, my friend! 🙂

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