Tuesday, January 08, 2008

How to kill your darlings without remorse

More from Neil Gaiman:

I'm more or less happily writing Chapter Six of The Graveyard Book. I say more or less as I'm at that place where I hope that the book knows what it's doing because right now I don't have a clue -- I'm writing one scene after another like a man walking through a valley in thick fog, just able to see the path a little way ahead, but with no idea where it's actually going to lead him.

And there you have it, folks. Novelists don't always know where their stories are headed. In fact, some of us never know. One way of writing is to imagine a good ending and then work out how to get your characters there. Another way (my way), is to hang on for dear life while your characters take you where they will.

I remember an old New Yorker cartoon (I think it was) from more than twenty years ago in which a physicist stands before a blackboard filled with a long, scary-looking formula. The gobbledygook on one side is linked to the gobbledygook on the other side by the words, "...and then a miracle happens." In the caption, one scientist tells his colleague, "I think you need to be more specific here in Step Two."

To a student of science, that's hilarious. But to a writer, it's... Well, it's life. Many of us, at least much of the time, have no earthly idea what's supposed to happen in Step Two. We tell our editors, "I don't know how I'll manage it, but I'm sure something will occur to me very soon."

I found myself in that place (having no earthly idea where I was headed) just yesterday as I labored on my work-in-progress. I've got a great set-up, two very likable protagonists, and lots of the heart-squeezing emotion romance readers clamor for. I'm excited about the story, but I don't know how it's going to end. I'm confident that everything will work out, however. I'm having a blast writing it, and that excitement is plenty of fuel to carry me all the way to the end.

They say a sculptor views a block of marble, imagines a statue, and then chips away every bit of stone that isn't the statue, thus revealing the work of art. That's how I write. My "block of marble" is the first draft of my story, which tends to be at least thirty percent and often fifty percent longer than the 55,000 words my editor wants. But that's fine. I take that draft and patiently chip away everything that isn't my story. I am a ruthless scene-killer, an unremorseful conversation condenser, a wild-eyed wielder of the Delete key. I used to save some of the better quality material that I cut, just in case I wanted it later. But I never did want it, so I no longer save it. There's plenty more good stuff where that came from. If I change my mind and want to reinsert a deleted scene, I just write it again and make it even better than last time.

Is it a waste of my time to write so much more than I know I'm going to use? No, because all writing is practice for more and better writing.

"Killing your darlings" is what many writers call deleting paragraphs, scenes, and even chapters that they've spent hours creating--all for nothing, they often believe. But a writer who can't stomach killing any of her darlings is not focusing on the big picture: her story as a whole. You may hate cutting scenes that are hilarious or poignant or suspenseful, but to be a good writer, you must do exactly that. If anything that you've written, no matter how beautifully, doesn't move your story along, it will bog your story down. By saving your "darlings," you might be killing your story.

Here's a writing tip some of you might be able to use: After finishing your first draft, find the highlighting tool in your word processor and then start reading, using the highlighter to indicate all of the sentences, paragraphs, and scenes that are absolutely essential to your story. (I use a yellow highlighter to remind myself that those parts of the story are "golden.") When you finish, delete everything that isn't highlighted. Save it in a Dead Darlings file if that makes you feel better, but I predict that after a while you'll stop bothering with that.

Now you're left with nothing but story. Your manuscript is still in very rough form, but there's not a boring bit in there because you've taken all of the irrelevant stuff out. Now you're ready to revise and polish. I go through many drafts on a book, so I do a highlighting pass after finishing my first draft, then do it again when I'm nearly finished with the manuscript. After some more tweaking and polishing, I use the highlighting tool a third and final time. When the manuscript is all golden, I'm finished. (Two notes: First, the highlighter is invaluable to me because except during that first pass, I'm not starting at Page One and progressing to the end of the manuscript. I jump around, working on whatever scenes and chapters I'm in the mood to work on. The highlighting tells me what I've finished and what still needs to be looked at. And second, on the last highlighting run I'm just deleting words and sentences, not whole paragraphs and scenes. It's all pretty painless by that time.)

I love every part of the writing process, but bringing a story home--making that final pass with my yellow highlighter and assuring myself that every sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter is "golden" satisfies my writer's heart on the deepest level. This is the best that's in me--at least until my editor points out something that I've missed!


Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading all about your writing process. I have not yet figured out mine quite so clearly, but hopefully, I am getting there:)

Anonymous said...

wasn't it Mark Twain who said something like "...a successful book is not made by what's in it, rather by what is left out of it.." ?

(yes, I do still pop in from time to time)

Shauna said...

Wow. Great stuff, Brenda. Something else to remember. Thanks!

Brenda Coulter said...

DG and Shauna, these are just suggestions. They work great for me, but your mileage may vary.

wasn't it Mark Twain who said something like "...a successful book is not made by what's in it, rather by what is left out of it.." ?

Beats me. But surely what's in a book is fairly important, too.

Unknown said...

Great system - may five it a whirl :-)

Anonymous said...

By Mark Twains logic, a book of blank pages would be the best book never writen...