Author Toolbox · Writing

Killing your darlings – Author Toolbox Blog Hop

It’s that time of the month again, folks! The Author Toolbox Blog Hop, created by Raimey Gallant, is back in full swing and some of the best and brightest writers and bloggers around (also, me…) are sharing their thoughts on all aspects of the writing life.

This month, as I’m working on polishing my manuscript in preparation for Pitch Wars, I wanted to talk about something all writers struggle with, and that’s being ruthless in the editing process.

Killing your darlings Lyndsey's Book Blog

What does it mean to kill your darlings?

We’ve all heard the phrase “kill your darlings”, whether you came across it while reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, or you’ve seen it used in the online writing community. There’s even a film with Daniel Radcliffe as poet Allen Ginsberg, who has been attributed (amongst many others) with inventing the saying, called Kill Your Darlings.

The basic message is that, during the editing process, writers should cut their favourite and most self-indulgent passages for the betterment of their manuscript. It’s a tough and painful lesson all writers learn when they come to revision time. First drafts are almost never good enough for publication, and even the most famous authors rewrote their works several times before sharing them with the world. Take a look at this post, How many drafts does it take to finish a novel? to see how many times some authors rewrite!

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A bit of background…

For those of you who might not know, I finished my first novel recently and plan to submit it to Pitch Wars next month. I wrote most of the first draft during NaNoWriMo 2016, and finished draft two in May. Since then, it’s been out with several beta readers who all really liked the story and gave me a few comments and suggestions which I’ve worked on incorporating into the text. (Check out my previous Author Toolbox post on the ABCs of beta readers).

My beta readers, however, are not fellow writers. They’re friends who love reading and who I trust to give me their honest opinion, but they aren’t familiar with the craft of writing.

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Preparing for Pitch Wars

In the run up to Pitch Wars, a raffle was hosted by last year’s mentees – writers who got picked by the 2016 mentors – offering to work with this year’s hopefuls on their competition entry, which comprises the first ten pages of your manuscript and a query letter. I entered the raffle and was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the winners, meaning the amazing Kristen Clouthier would take a look at my pages and query and give me her expert opinion on what I could do to improve them, and therefore increase my chances of getting chosen by a mentor next month.

I pinged off my pages and waited patiently (lies, I was so nervous and anxious!) for Kristen’s reply and her suggested edits. She replied really quickly with a few questions to give her a better idea of my MS and a couple of thoughts she’d had whilst reading. Her advice was to cut the opening scenes and start the story later, as I had started it too early and the inciting incident was several chapters in. She was absolutely right and I think I’d known that all along, having worried my beta readers would find the start boring (it’s a fantasy novel with no fantastical elements for several chapters, what was I thinking?).

Kristen recommended I cut everything up until the action really starts, and then send her my new first ten pages so she could critique those instead. I set about chopping a good 8k words off the beginning of my book, and do you know what? It didn’t even hurt. If that isn’t a sign that Kristen was completely right and my story started way too soon, then I don’t know what is. I polished up those opening pages, readding some of the important information from the cut segment, and sent them off. Kristen loved the new opening, and even though it still needs work and lots of spit and polish, we both agreed it was definitely the right place to start the story.

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My dead darling

OK, I lied, one part did hurt, but I knew it was the right thing to do. Kristen said that she wouldn’t be surprised if someone down the road – a Pitch Wars mentor, or future agent – would ask me to cut the prologue. I wrote about my prologue here on my blog, you can even read the original, first draft version, and I discussed the pros and cons of prologues and reasons why they’re so controversial amongst writers and editors. That didn’t stop me writing it and including it in my manuscript. But, as Kristen said, it was really just a huge spoiler for everything that happens later in the book, so I knew that, with the new beginning being more action packed and gripping, it had to go.

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The five stages of loss

So, I killed my darling, I cut my prologue. I saved a copy of my original MS so I can keep it for posterity, and to see how far it has come by the time it gets published, and maybe that took the sting out of removing the prologue and first three chapters. I didn’t delete them and send them into the void, I can still refer to them and use snippets here and there throughout the rest of my MS.

If your manuscript is finished and you’re ready to start the revision process, here are five steps to killing your darlings:

  1. Give your writing to beta readers. You can reread your work yourself, but the bits that need to go tend to be the writer’s favourites. When your betas tell you something didn’t work for them, or it felt clunky and unclear, believe them.
  2. Cut the word/phrase/passage and paste it into a new document, or wherever you keep snippets for yourself. Don’t just hit delete and erase it forever, you never know when you might be able to reuse at least some part of your cut segment.
  3. You now need to fill the gaping hole you’ve created. This will probably either be with a completely reworded version of the original, or a sentence or two that smoothly transitions the reader into the next part of the story. Read the couple of pages before your MS’s new hole to immerse yourself in that part of the story.
  4. Write. Don’t worry that you might not be able to come up with something as brilliant as your dead darling, all of your words come out of the same person, good or bad, and you will write wonderful words again.
  5. Go back to step 1, give the new version to your beta readers and see if they prefer it. If they’re happy, you’re good to go.

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Writing is a very personal experience, but ultimately your writing needs to be aimed at your readers and not just an exercise in self-indulgence. That’s what diaries are for. Be brave and ruthless in your editing, and try not to take it personally when readers don’t connect with your favourite passages. Kill all your darlings, and your novel will be the better for it, I promise.

 

Lyndsey

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I am a member of theย Book Depositoryย affiliate program, so if you click through and buy any of the books mentioned in this blog I might make a little commission, but I am not paid to review books and all reviews are my own opinions!

 

Killing your darlings Author Toolbox Blog Hop Lyndsey's Book Blog

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39 thoughts on “Killing your darlings – Author Toolbox Blog Hop

  1. Great post!
    I remember earlier this year thinking of a truly amazing twist for my story, that made almost too much sense NOT to happen. But it involved killing one of my most beloved darlings. I nearly backed out, but some sacrifices you just have to make!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay I’m so glad you found our perfect twist though, that’s fantastic! It hurts when you have to lose a part of the story you love, whether it’s a character, a subplot or a beautiful passage, but I feel like writing it is a cathartic experience and if it ends up being cut in editing, so be it, as long as I get to read it for myself later and remember I wrote it ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had to laugh at myself last week when I found a document with cut pieces from a novel I edited last year. Some of those passages were beautiful, yet completely wrong for the book’s themes. And others… Well, let’s just say that there’s a reason some things are cut during the editing process.

    Good luck with Pitch Wars!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Ronel! It’s so funny to look back at our old writing isn’t it, even just one year ago. I’m glad you kept those passages though so you can see how far you’ve come, and maybe use elements of them in future ๐Ÿ˜€

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As someone who has been editing chapter 1 (when I should be finishing the book!) I’ve found killing darlings so hard to do.
    I’ll read over a paragraph, love it, but then realise that it adds nothing to the story, or introduces too many characters at the start.
    I have so many outtakes and deleted scenes saved in a word document. I plan to use them later on as Easter eggs in my blog, so they will always have a home ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that idea! I think it’s so fun when authors have extras for their fans on their websites and in their newsletters, I love reading snippets that didn’t make the book, or short stories from other characters’ POVs. Best of luck with your editing (and finishing the book!) ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lyndsey, thank you for explaining what the phrase โ€œkill your darlingsโ€ means. Oddly, I had no idea it referred to passagesโ€ฆ I always thought it was about characters.

    I am currently in the revision process, so I completely understand about killing scenes. I appreciate that you mentioned to keep them somewhere, though. Even if that part no longer works, it was still something you wrote and worth saving. Excellent advice!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly, everything you write is worth saving, even if it never sees the light of day, or you take it apart completely to use in different projects. I think it refers to any part of your story you love and have to lose, whether that’s characters, subplots, passages or scenes – anything can be a darling! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel!! Getting close to the heavy editing. Kill your darlings is definitely something I needed to do. I’m happy I did though because even if at first, I hated it, I realize now how better and tighter the story is. A necessary evil! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! It can be painful, but ultimately makes you a better, braver writer and cuts the deadwood from your book that others would have to wade through to see the beautiful tale your trying to tell ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Right! I knew instantly Kristen was right about the beginning of my story, so it was easy to cut. She actually also suggested I cut the best friend character, but I chose not to as she hasn’t read my full MS, only my first ten pages and query, and he does come into it later on – I probably need to work on my query as it obviously wasn’t reflected and maybe should be! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s such a good tip, I was definitely aware as soon as I sent it to betas that the beginning (except the prologue, which I adored!) would be slightly boring, so it was the right thing to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. love the tip about not deleting your scenes completely. I have a special folder for deleted scenes in my scrivner binder. I will review them occasionally to make sure there isn’t some piece of critical information that I have now deleted from my draft. Thanks for the article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great tip, I’ll definitely be reading through my cut scenes and reworking some stuff back into the manuscript as a whole, it’s so important not to just hit delete and lose those words forever.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree with saving a backup of the dead darlings. It makes it easier, but you can always retrieve it if need be/if the new edits aren’t working. I like your prologue, but I didn’t read as far as the mentee. I’m happy you’re happy though. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A dreary fact that cannot be drilled deep enough among writers, if you ask me. And I doubt it gets easier with experience. The five stages of loss, I know, will come in handy since I too am in the middle of some cleaning.
    On another note, Hemingway once confessed/professed that his final MS turns out to be one-fifth of his first draft. Imagine what his bloopers would be worth today!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I agree. Kill your darlings, but do so with kindness. I typically don’t kill my darlings, I just bash them over the head and drag them to my notes with the intention of someday using elements of them in other pieces if they work.

    Like

  10. Great post. I’m not a fan of prologues, and I think your Pitch Wars mentor has highlighted one of the reasons – because they can give away a lot of information that’s better kept secret. And it will be all the more powerful if you slip that information in throughout your manuscript, one snippet at a time.

    Once you’re published, those first 8.000 words might make a good short story to offer your email subscribers …

    Like

  11. Very interesting! I guess it does make sense – what an author wants to see and what readers want to see are usually two very different things. That’s why one may love their work but it may not sell very well. It’s tough but I think, in the end, feedback’s an author’s greatest gift.
    Great post, Lyndsey!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Sophie! Sometimes I think you can be too close to the story too and not see that what you’ve written doesn’t necessarily match you imagined, your brain is filling the plot holes and adding to your description to make a fuller book than you’ve written. Someone else with fresh eyes can see the book you’ve actually written and make suggestions to improve on that, instead of the book you imagine. If that makes sense! ๐Ÿ˜Š

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Great post! Killing your darlings can be so hard.

    I always keep a separate folder “MSTITLE_Deleted Scenes” and I save the stuff I cut in there (just in case :p), and as I’m reading the comments, I see a lot of authors do this!

    Thanks for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚

    Like

  13. Wow can I relate! Some days I would just dedicate towards โ€œperforming major surgeryโ€ on my writing. Deleting full paragraphs if not pages of texts. Moving scenes around. Changing every single word possible until my writing read almost
    melodiously. Soooooo painful!!! And yet so necessary in order to perfect our craft!

    Liked by 1 person

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