An Amateur’s Guide to Killing Your Darlings
I have been writing a book for what seems like half of my adult life. The hardest part has been revising just as other writers warned me. I doubted it at first, especially when struggling to master dialogue and tense symmetry. I have sent my book out twice and instead of a ticker tape parade, I received big fat no thank yous that varied from the apologetic to the terse. A bit crestfallen, I put my book Mermaid away periodically to live life and gather strength to work on it again. A few weeks ago, I started seriously researching and taking classes on writing. Having invested so much time in my work, I knew I had to push to save it. When the Miami Book Fair set up, I took a few classes. I was able to understand how I had been going so terribly wrong. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I would like to share my revising list with you. Please comment and let me know if anything (or nothing) has been helpful. Have a wonderful time committing literary murder.
1. Kill overly descriptive adjectives.
I have a tendency to be overly descriptive with colors. In one draft I said emerald instead of green and coffee colored instead of brown. This says to the reader that you are trying too hard. Stick to basics in an almost Hemingway direction, there is no shame in being descriptive just try to keep it direct.
2. Laugh at yourself.
Your writing is a beautiful product of your creativity, but as you evolve, you may see how young you once were. I find myself rolling my eyes at my past mistakes like heavy-handed dialogue.
We will get better.
3. Cut continuous exposition.
There is a tendency in all of us budding writers to tell and not show. Your points will get cross through details not meandering prose about the setting or character. Sometimes a thought, physical motion or a spoken word is more powerful than five descriptive paragraphs. Cutting has been painful for me and I push myself to ask, “Does this really need to be here? Is this moving the story forward? Cheesy as it sounds the usual answer is no.
4. Condense to about 250 pages.
In my research this seems to be the magic number. Not sure why it is, but just putting it out here.
5. Highlight bits you absolutely love.
Just because you have to cut things does not mean they are gone forever. I keep a computer document open wherever I cut anything called, aptly enough, “cut bits”. If you really love a line or word, highlight it and keep it in the back of your mind. Not everything has to be tossed.
6. Watch tense.
This is one of my Achilles heel. I will switch tenses throughout a page. Therefore, to counteract this, I bring intense awareness and scan the page several times to fix errors. Sometimes being aware of your tendencies is enough to fix them.
7. Work on between 10-20 pages daily/nightly.
The average attention span is twenty minutes and I find that ten pages of heavy marking I want to just zone out. After I reach my mental anguish limit of editing, I walk the dog or look at Vogue or read the New York Times. You might want to push for more, but break it up throughout the day. Otherwise, you might actually resent your writing and feel oppressed. However, you know yourself best and if you are on a tear, ride it out.
8. Nothing wrong with said or ask.
Answered, responded, inquired, beseeched –all of these stand out as we have been accustomed to said and ask. Anything else sticks out and thereby adds unnecessary scrutiny to our word choice. The reader needs to be drawn into our words, not our word choice.
9. Consider cutting the parts without dialogue.
My paid editor is a playwright and she tells me to consider just having scenes of dialogue and action.
10. Write a post it with your theme.
As an English teacher, I direct my students to constantly seek evidence to substantiate the theme. If you do not know what your theme is, maybe sit down and decide upon one now. My theme is an independent girl can grow into a strong woman only if she is fearless.
11. Make notes to yourself in the margin.
I write notes as if I am speaking to myself. I do not count the spelling and I make them as detailed as possible.
12. Keep sentences simple.
I teach fancy grammar, but sometimes a period is equal to a semicolon.
13. Rearrange scenes.
When you are cutting exposition, it unpeels a layer for further action. If a scene is great but does not work in the new context, consider tweaking it and putting it into a new area. I did this twice in my twenty-page limit today and I love the new direction.
14. Circle overused or questionable words.
My trouble words are chaos, drink, blink strange and observe. I circle them and look at a thesaurus.
15. Cross out lightly.
Some words, scenes and characters are salvageable. No need to throw everything out. I once had a friend go through an existential crisis and throw most clothes out of her closet. A few weeks later, she realized she had to buy new clothes thus defeating the purpose of her whole escapade. We may need things later when they make more sense.
16. You cannot type and edit at the same time.
I print out my work as seen in the picture and mark by hand. A recent workshop teacher suggested to do that and I wrote out my last blog post in my notebook. I saw this at work when I scored my second editor’s pick at my other blog at Open Salon. I know the difference now between trying out thoughts and formalizing them through typing. I go through my hand written pages and highlight or make notes. I think this really makes all the difference in the world.
If anyone wants to talk about writing, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.