Revision: Learning to Kill Your Darlings

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As writers, we must be the advocates and fans of our own work; confidence is key to success. However, when a writer is so in love with and attached to their words that they can neither handle criticism nor effectively edit, it's a problem.

If you're trying to write a novel for professional publication, the inability to engage critically (and sometimes brutally) with your own writing can hurt your "product," cost you a relationship with an agent (if you can land one in the first place) and make you publishing kryptonite (editors don't like drama queens or cry babies).

Sometimes we have to kill the things we love: a turn of phrase, a clever joke, a scene, a character, an entire plotline. Even when it hurts (and it can really hurt), editing is worth it because it makes your book stronger. It doesn't matter if the joke is funny or the line is beautiful if it doesn't jibe logically, slows pacing or is out of character.

Your job as a writer is to remove all the "seams" of your writing so the reader can fully engage with your story. If you don't revise properly, that's not going to happen.

How do you become a champion darling killer?

Learn to divorce yourself/self worth from your writing. It's important–though not easy–to realize that you are not your book. It may feel that way, but someone saying that a character doesn't work for them, or the pacing was slow, or the phrasing was overwritten in places is not their way of saying "you are a terrible person and I hate you." When a critique partner, agent, editor or reader offers feedback, they are critically engaging with the work. And in the case of agents and editors, they are working with you and offering notes because they love your book, not because they hate it.

Gain some distance. Sometimes we need some distance from our story in order to engage with it critically. This can mean not touching your book for months before rereading and tackling revisions. If you don't have months (three+ months is ideal, but not always possible), even a few weeks can be useful if you need to have a tighter turn-around on your revisions. When you do go back, try to read as if it is not your book. How would you advise a stranger?

Find a team of thoughtful, talented, honest critique partners. The writing world is better when you have your squad--like-minded writers at approximately the same writing/career stage as you. A good critique partner is worth their weight in gold--and the great ones essentially do the same work a paid editor would do. When you've found someone you like and work well with, you can exchange chapters with them as you write, brainstorm, get opinions on a revision, etc. Ask them where they are bored or confused--those are spots to concentrate on for darling killing/clarification. There are different types of critique partners/styles and many ways to find them, which I'll get into in detail later.

But, most importantly, find CPs worth their salt. Not all criticism is created equal. There is this ridiculous notion that all opinions are valid. Nope; they're not. Not every CP needs to have written their own book, but one good test of "do I value this person's opinion?" is have you read their novel, and are they well-versed in the craft of writing? If they're not a writer, are they well-read in the genre? (ask people what they're favorite YA books are; that will tell you a lot) Educated in the field on which they are critiquing? (historical accuracy, science, grammar & usage) As you engage with them, are they asking you thoughtful questions? Do their suggestions make your book better? Do you trust them?

Save everything. Make copies. It becomes much easier to brutally slay darlings if you know there's always a back-up if you change your mind. Or just that your best witticisms are saved somewhere for you to read on those long, lonely nights. Frankly, in revision I often would take something out and then later find a place to work it back in, or reference the passage I wrote previously to salvage from it the thing I liked (if not the exact joke/phrasing). This is also useful because what one person might have you cut, another might ask you to restore. I keep a file in my Scrivener file for scenes or bits I've discarded, so they are always there. And each time I embarked on a major revision, I "saved as" and essentially started a new Scrivener document so the previous one was fully intact, just in case.

Don't be afraid to start over. Sometimes you have to throw it all away and start over. That could mean the whole book (*slightly panicked laughing*), a scene, a chapter, or large sections of your book. You are not a bad writer and your book is not bad if something doesn't work and you need to start over on it. Most often, things are BETTER, not worse the second time we write them. I think this is because by that point, you've internalized all the points you need to hit, so you approach the new writing with confidence. So often first drafts are exploratory--you are figuring out the story, the characters, the details, the feelings as you write them. Revisions are where you can tighten up, dig deep, and really shine.

Embrace rewrites. Save copies of the original. Drink lots of wine.

Don't be afraid to do terrible things to your characters. If people are telling you your character is boring, or they couldn't connect to them, or the pacing was slow: look honestly at what you are doing to your characters. You might be too attached to make them dynamic, give them voice or create conflicts that drive the pace of your novel. Your characters should have flaws (and proper character arcs!), relationships should hit speed bumps, sometimes people have to die or have awful things happen to them, in order to create conflict, stakes, and growth.

Show, don't tell. You've probably heard this a lot. What does it mean?

Telling is not an inherently bad writing style; in fact, a good tell-er can write immediate and interesting action scenes. But nothing is more frustrating and leads to more disconnection from the characters/story, than an entire book of telling. By telling the reader what is happening and what they should feel instead of showing them, you are encouraging disengagement--the last thing you want from your reader.

I also file information dumps under telling, as well as expository dialogue. Any case where a writer is smacking the reader in the face with information instead of artfully weaving those details into the story is cause for disengagement.

Write the way you write. And then if you are a tell-er or are told you are doing too much telling, BRUTALLY REWRITE EVERYTHING. It takes practice, but over time you'll find yourself defaulting less and less to telling in first drafts. I always write once the way I naturally want to, and then go back through and line edit my own work, changing out declarations for descriptions, weaving in emotional responses and "the five senses."

However, showing doesn't excuse purple prose or over-writing. Less is more (usually).

In the struggle to find our unique writer's voice and be a "good writer," many of us end up totally over-writing. We think "lots of description" and "big fancy words" equals good writing. But there's something beautiful about short, effective prose and a story that gets to the point.

What can often kill a book is melodramatic over-writing, especially in big conflict scenes. Are you going overboard in describing how someone is feeling? Is there too much focus on how things look, smell, feel, on colors and sensations? Is your dialogue overblown, ie: would someone actually say that?  Do you have long, beautiful sentences full of metaphor and poetry... and do they actually mean something? What are you trying to say, and can you say it more concisely? This is nothing against beautiful writing, but gorgeous prose without meaning is, essentially, meaningless.

Long, unwieldy sentences, densely packed paragraphs, and pages of description are places to look to cut. Anywhere a reader's eye might trip over your writing is a place to trim. When readers trip, they may stop reading--and you don't want an agent or editor to stop reading, especially.

There are emotional cycles to writing and revising, and it's okay to hate your book. But it's key to learn the difference between "good hate" and "bad hate." It is perfectly natural, in the writing/revising cycle, to have periods where you hate everything. The writing is trite, the characters are awful, that kissing scene NEEDS TO DIE, this book is TERRIBLE! Step back, take a deep breath and regroup. Sometimes, abjectly hating something is a sign: it needs to go. But sometimes hating something is your brain being EVIL, and trying to trick you into giving up. In cases like these, distance and/or an emergency CP session are required.

Killing your darlings is a balancing act. You must both make yourself open to criticism and practice extreme humility when it comes to your writing, but also walk with confidence. This is YOUR story, and ultimately you need to be happy with it. No first draft is perfect, and there is always something to fix. You have to put in the work, but at some point also have the confidence to stop, to share your work with yours, to query.

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