Monday, February 15, 2010

Killing My Darlings

The time has come, and some of it has to go.

At my first MFA residency, I attended a panel discussion on revision. One of the writer/mentors I’ve been privileged to work with said it best: “When you revise your writing, what you’re really doing is killing your darlings.”

Those “darlings” are the well-turned phrases that do nothing to enhance character or plot; they are the things the writer loves and the reader doesn’t need.

“Of course,” she continued, “It’s easier when you have an editor to do it for you. Then it’s like hiring an assassin.”

Everyone in the audience laughed. I wrote it down in my notebook, and I’ve come back to it again and again.

No writer wants to toss something s/he has written, even if the act isn’t as physical as it once was – a balled-up piece of paper in the trash can is now a simple backspace on the keyboard. Still, it’s cutting, excising, deleting, destroying – killing.

In the past, when someone said a story wasn’t working, I shrugged it off, waited a few days, and then went back to it with a critical eye. I refused to let myself see these lost words, deleted scenes, diminished character or two as my “darlings”. It was about getting it right, making it better, holding out for the best possible version of the story. It required me to put the writing ego aside, the part of myself that knows I can come up with a pretty phrase or two or twenty.

So I’ve never really been afraid of revision – until now.

These days, I’m taking the first 80 pages of my novel and more or less rearranging them – introducing the “stakes” for the characters earlier in the story, and finding moments to slow down the pace, to fold in the backstory.

I’ve rewritten the first 20 pages a dozen times, and it’s not there yet. I know what’s standing in my way – it’s my darlings. There they are, all lined up in front of the firing squad, pleading their own cases in a last-ditch attempt at survival. But this sentence makes me laugh! I need this section to establish setting! How else will I work in the story of their ancestors?

It’s true – they do feel like darlings, like my sweet, loyal offspring. But the time has come – and some of them definitely have to go.

1 comment:

  1. Well isn't a little early, can't you wait until the novel is in it's first rough drift before doing the cutting?