Tuesday, May 5

Killing Off Our Darlings


I wrote for several hours the other night on the newest Women of Willow Bay book. Just wrote—didn’t stop to edit as I often do, didn’t take any breaks, didn’t even get up to go to the bathroom. I simply sat at my computer and the words poured out of my fingertips. 

Well, today I reread what I’d written and about a quarter of it is worth hanging on to. The rest? Meh. Kinda demoralizing, but those couple of thousand words that won’t be included in the book led me to the next scene in the story. They brought me to a pivotal scene where Sarah first sees Willow Bay. This is her new refuge and this is where she first sees Tony—the man who’s going to win her heart, teach her to trust and love again, and who will fight for her as the story progresses.

So even though those words aren’t going to show up in the story, the writing of them served a purpose, as do all the words that are written and later cut during edits and revisions. Most writers know about killing off “our darlings”—the pages of scenes that get cut or rewritten in revisions. Just because a paragraph, a scene, or even an entire chapter gets cut doesn’t mean it’s not good writing. Truthfully, almost all my discarded scenes are good writing, they’re just unnecessary to the story, so I keep them in an "extras" file and who knows? They could turn up in another story or begin a new story or ... whatever. Frankly, I do that with a lot of loves scenes--write them and then take them out, so I have a "love scenes" folder that I can refer to if I'm having trouble finding words.

My editor always tells me to focus on the story—does the scene move the narrative along, does it serve the story? If not, it needs to go. Backstory generally doesn’t serve a purpose, even though I know ever-so-many readers who really love backstory. But flashbacks and info dumps don’t move the story forward, and sometimes, they make the story go backward or cause it to simply sit and spin its metaphorical wheels in the mud. 

I think, of all the lessons I’ve learned at the knees of my editor and my critique partners, the one that’s been hardest to put into action is the “no info dumps, limit backstory and flashbacks” message. I don’t over-describe settings or characters, I don’t get bogged down in pointless dialogue, I don’t wander off into a tangent that has nothing to do with the scene at hand. But I do give my readers way, way too much information about my characters’ pasts and the situations that brought them together. 

I believe I do it because I want my readers to understand exactly what’s going on in the story, but honestly, they do not need me to hold their hands as they begin my books. If the story begins when the action starts, then they’ll pick up whatever they need to know as the narrative goes along. That’s a tough one for me. How about you? Do you kill off a lot of your darlings in revision or do you write a pretty clean manuscript from the very beginning?

12 comments:

  1. As you know, I probably don't kill as many darlings as I should. You said something in your post that made me think: "I know ever-so-many readers who really love backstory." I do, too. And I read a question the other day about how people felt about prologues because they're kind of unloved, too. The majority of people who answered DID like prologues--and I didn't even answer. It makes me wonder who's deciding what readers want. Good post, Nan!

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    1. I'm surprised, too, at how many people really adore backstory, prologues and even epilogues--all of which I've been told are writing no-nos. I think editors are trying to get us to tighten up our story-telling and keep the narrative active and in the present. But, I confess that I don't mind a Prologue at all and sometimes I even want an epilogue...just because I'm not ready to let the happily-ever-after go. Bises, baby!

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  2. I love a prologue...and have written many! lol

    Killing off the wordcount - especially from those days when everything just seems to flow! - is so hard. Not because I think every word is perfect - far from it! - but because when I get those edits I can't believe that I didn't see how badly I'd mucked up a scene or slowed the pacing to a crawl...great post, Nan!

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    1. It is eye-opening to see what others see that you missed, isn't it? And sometimes, even if the words are gorgeous and beautifully written, they still slow down the pacing.

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  3. I'm intrigued by your post about back story as well as Liz's comments. Is it just me or have yesterday's negative attitudes toward back story morphed into today's much-anticipated e-book novellas, advertised as extras, but really just glorified back stories? lol There has to be a back story limit, initially, until we fall in love with the characters here and now. Then we can't get enough of them, back story and all!

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    1. I think you're right--once we fall in love with the characters, we want to know everything about them.LOL

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    2. That's a good point, Cathy! I wonder...I also wonder if that's not where series get their start. I know WOWB was originally just one book, but characters from that one book sorta took over and demanded their own stories...some of the stuff cut from the first book showed up in the second.

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  5. PS. Do you write from an outline? I'm using an outline this time and am hoping that will help me to avoid writing so much that has to be deleted.

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    1. I don't generally write from an outline, I strictly a pantser, but this new book has needed some notes and a timeline and maybe some little bit of outlining to keep facts straight. I've thought about an outline, but I never get past thinking. ;-) Glad you stopped by, Cathy!

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  6. My file of Bix cuts is probably about 2/3 the size of the final manuscript/eighth version. That's a lot of cutting over the years...

    But, I'd have to say none of it is back story. Bix's back story is a mystery even to him :)

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    1. Backstory isn't all that's cuttable--sometimes it's unwieldy setting descriptions or just a scene that go off on a tangent that you didn't intend. So often, my editor will say to me, "You don't need this," and she's usually right. ;-)

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