Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Killing Your Darlings

The book is almost done. I have maybe a chapter or two to write, and I definitely think that making myself just rewrite the end from scratch was a good plan. I really hope I can get to the end today because I desperately need to sleep. I was thinking about the next scenes as I was falling asleep last night, and in one of them, a character has a moment when she feels extremely betrayed and angry. My ever-helpful brain decided to then dredge up lots of times from the past when I felt betrayed and angry. There were things I'd forgotten about, and suddenly I wanted to go back in time nearly fifteen years and sock people in the teeth. I could feel my blood pressure rising, and it took all kinds of happy thoughts and deep, cleansing breaths to settle back down to sleep. I hope this pays off in having a truly authentic emotional reaction for my character.

There are some familiar sayings that have been corrupted along the way, so that the misquote is what's quoted. Kind of like the way people will say that money is the root of all evil, when what the Bible actually says is that the love of money (as in greed) is a root of evil. In the writing world, one of those sayings is "you have to kill your darlings." I'm not sure who first said something about killing darlings, but I would suspect that the original statement was that you have to be willing to kill your darlings.

But that doesn't stop people from taking it the wrong way. I once went to a session on revision at a writing conference, and the speaker flat-out said that you should delete anything you really liked from your manuscript because you had to kill your darlings. That makes no sense -- would you really want your final manuscript to contain only the parts you didn't like? Sometimes darlings deserve to be darlings. You like those things because they're good. When you write the perfect scene that manages to clarify the characters and move the plot forward, all with concise action and dialogue that sings, you just know it's good and you rightfully love it.

On the other hand, it's also true that sometimes the things we really love are things we wrote for ourselves, not for the reader or for the story. They're those self-indulgent bits, and those do need to go. But how do you tell which darlings deserve the death penalty?

Here's a death row roster:
1) The brilliant line that doesn't really belong -- something incredibly witty, clever or poetic that the character wouldn't actually say, or wouldn't say in those circumstances. Often this is the writer putting things she'd like to say into the character's mouth, or else trying to shoehorn in something utterly brilliant that doesn't fit. The best comparison may be the line in a movie that seems written for the trailer. When you see the trailer, even though you know nothing about the character or the story, there's sometimes that one line that makes the audience cheer -- and then when you see the movie, that line falls flat in context because it's something that character wouldn't say or it doesn't belong in that moment. If you can picture your character pausing dramatically before and after saying the line (so it's easier to edit it into the trailer), the line probably deserves to die.

2) Visible research -- when you put a lot of work into your research, it's tempting to make sure it shows up in your manuscript. Really obscure or interesting facts are especially tempting. Doesn't it make your characters sound clever to know those things? And don't you look really clever to be able to point out all those little details? But if these things don't affect the story or characters, they don't really need to be there, especially if they're not things your characters would actually notice or talk about.

3) The self-indulgent scene -- this is my big weakness. When I really like characters, I don't care if the scenes they're in are full of tension and conflict. I'd be willing to watch them do their laundry or just chat. I also like to see how characters react to things, so I have a bad habit of writing a scene in which a character tells another character what just happened in the previous scene. I like seeing how the one character describes what happened and how the other character reacts. Or I like giving the non-viewpoint character from the previous scene the chance to talk about it. All of these scenes need to go. We don't need two different scenes conveying the same information, and while I think I'd enjoy reading about the characters I love when they're not in mortal peril, that would actually slow the book down a lot and I'm sure I'd want to skip to the part where something happens.

4) Out-of-place description -- there's something about description that tends to turn writers into Victorian poets. I blame school writing exercises, where you're assigned to write a paragraph describing a photograph taped to the chalkboard, and the more flowery the description, the better your grade. As a result, you may be going along with a bouncy, semi-sarcastic narrative voice, then you hit a spot where there's something to describe, and suddenly the setting sun is a glowing orb stretching tendrils of fire into the sky as it shades from mauve to magenta. And you just love that description because it's so lovely and vivid and poetic. But it must go unless your viewpoint character is a Victorian poet and really thinks that way. If your hero is a macho man soldier of fortune, his color vocabulary is likely limited to the eight colors in the basic crayon box, and to him, the jungle is green -- maybe dark green and light green, with a little greenish-brown. Even if he does have the color vocabulary of the 64-crayon box, if he's running for his life he's not going to stop and notice all the varied shades of green in the verdant canopy of jungle.

It may be painful to kill these darlings, but if it helps matters, keep a "cuts" file for the things you delete. You never know, you may find a use for them someday. That brilliant line that didn't fit your character may be perfect for a future character. I did end up using a cut scene in a future book in the series, where there was a reason to rehash what had happened in a previous book and get the other character's take on it. It was self-indulgent in the previous book when the scene they were talking about had just happened, but it moved the plot along (with some modifications) in the next book. The research that doesn't belong in the book could make a good feature for your web site when the book is published, and readers who do love your characters enough to be willing to watch them do laundry might enjoy seeing your deleted scenes that didn't move the plot forward. Out of context they can be fun bonus features even if they didn't belong in the book. I'm not sure what to do with the descriptive passages, unless you save them to use when you write a book about a Victorian poet.

In unrelated news, for a brief moment last night, I had two books in the top 100 urban fantasies at Amazon. It was kind of funny because almost all urban fantasy novels have dark covers -- lots of black and midnight blue with ominous figures. And then there were my white books with cartoons. They really stood out on that list, which could be good, but that also means that when people see them in stores, they aren't going to think "oh, an urban fantasy!" Especially since Amazon seems to be the only place where they're "shelved" as urban fantasy, and I'm not sure how they got that designation there. It's not from the publisher, but I don't know if this has something to do with reader tags.

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