On Revision: How, Exactly, Do I Murder My Darlings?

After boiling my novel down to Just One Thing and identifying some crap, I need to decide what to do with it all. Here is how, exactly, I am going to murder my darlings (and whether I will in the end). This is how I’m going to go into November armed with that list of scenes to write.

In his 1914 lecture “On Style”, Arthur Quiller-Couch says*,

If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

(Emphasis Sir Quiller-Couch’s.)

This doesn’t mean I must go through my manuscript, select everything I love and press the delete key. It means I need to take an objective look at the bits that I wrote and make an honest assessment on whether they should stay or they should go.

The Crapbusting Mindset

As I go through the exercises below, it helps me to ask these two questions:

  • What’s the purpose of this [series, character, place, scene]? Is it relevant to the Just One Thing? Does it help drive the plot along?
  • Where am I emoting? Is this really what my character wants to say, or is it my unadulterated voice? Is this truly helpful to the plot? Put your emotions in, but leave your voice out. Let your characters speak. Jenni Fagan explains nicely in “6 Simple Keys to Revising Your Fiction”.

Then I need to make the tough decisions on two fronts: outliers and series (or “story arcs” or “sub-plots” or “sub-themes” – whatever you want to call them).

Decide the Fate of the Outliers

First, I need to deal with my outliers. In my last post on revision, I used a target as my Crapdar of choice to detect crap. I had a couple of clearly irrelevant, self-pitying and useless scenes that missed the target completely. It was easy to decide to cut those.

But not all tangential characters, scenes or places need to be destined for deletion (a fate worse than death in the storyline – to be erased altogether). Below are four broad options:

  1. Cut. Scenes that were manifestations of my subconscious acting out. Characters that created unnecessary complications.
  2. Rework. Rewrite a scene to make it move the plot along towards the Just One Thing. Make a character more violent and nefarious.
  3. Combine. Roll a few different characters into one. Put together some scenes that serve the same purpose and insert the new and improved scene into the perfect place.
  4. Keep. It was a necessary action scene to move the plot along, though it didn’t have much to do with my Just One Thing. It was a character that had potential – I’d just need to rework a few scenes. Flesh out, whittle (check for consistency, change some names) or copyedit/proofread.

If you use any other options not listed above, please share.

So. I plotted everything out, printed the target slides onto good old-fashioned A4 paper and let myself loose along a string of cafés in Paris, Strasbourg and Dijon. Armed with a vessel of Pastis, Kronenburg or Côtes du Rhone and a red pen, I went to work. One by one, I thought through all of the elements that missed the target completely, as well as the elements in the outermost ring, and made some choices. My results yielded some valuable insights. Here’s a picture of a couple of my outliers and epiphanic scribbles:

Kill! Combine! Keep! Hurrah! (That spot of blurred ink is a remnant of my liquid lubricant of choice. I think that one was Ricard.)

Kill! Combine! Rework! Rawr! Or keep. (That spot of blurred ink is a remnant of… I think that one was Ricard.)

Erin Bowman has some tips on killing characters and unnecessary darlings, as well as links to some good further reading in “Kill Your Darlings”. I’m holding off on killing prose darlings until after I get my scenes right (I don’t want to polish prose just to have to cut it in the end).

Working through Series in 3 Steps

But those are the easy ones, outliers. They are the fat. Now it’s time to really dig into the meat-carving fiesta.

For each series (story arc/sub-plot/sub-theme), follow Brian McKnight’s advice and “repeat steps one through three”:

Step 1: Map out what you want the beginning, middle and end to be

What is and where is the climax? Should it have multiple ups and downs?

I listed the milestones, numbered them, then drew a jagged line annotated with numbers. A subl This is an example of how I’ve done my main series:

A page from my Carnet. Words are blurred to protect the plot, but you get the idea about the structure. Nothing we haven't seen in elementary school.

A page from my Carnet. Words are blurred to protect the plot, but you get the idea about the structure. Nothing we haven’t seen in elementary school.

Step 2: Identify the purpose of each scene

I added this step to make the next step “operational”. (Refer to “Crapbusting Mindset” section, question one above.)

Step 3: Go through each series in order and decide where there are (a) missing scenes and (b) scenes that serve no purpose

  • For missing scenes, make a list of scenes that you need to write. I use simple phrases (e.g., “Character X makes a deal with Character Y”). For me, knowing the scene’s “what” is perfect – a big part of the fun of NaNoWriMo is letting my characters delight and surprise me with “how” the scene comes to life.
  • For scenes that serve no purpose, decide on a course of action using the four options listed in the previous section.

Because I heart Excel, I use a spreadsheet to track everything. For this exercise, I list the scene name, purpose, action to take and notes. Here’s an example of what I’ve done with Chapter 1 (shared here in August):

Le geek, c’est chic. Click to enlarge.

Le geek, c’est chic. Click to enlarge.

I am still plugging away at this. By Halloween, I intend to dress up as my list of scenes to write. The day after, I will don my Viking helmet and battle away at my word count bar.

The Bottom Line: Choose

There are many strategies and methods for revising novels and murdering darlings. Regardless of which one you choose,

the important thing is to prune purposefully.

Allan Eskens does a systematic check for places where he got too lazy to describe things properly (his “was” check is among three helpful tips for a better first revision http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/3-tips-for-a-better-first-revision). After evaluating each case, he decides that

…sometimes “was” fits just right and no change is needed. At least by doing a “was” edit, I’ve forced myself to examine my choice.

(Emphasis mine.)

I am doing the same. I don’t want to accidentally leave a useless narrative element in my novel. If something doesn’t serve a particular purpose, I want it to be because I chose to take poetic license, not because it slipped through the cracks or because I was too lazy to have a look.

Avoid accidental irrelevance!

In one of my favorite books ever, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, William Strunk, Jr. tells us that

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

If I zoom out and apply Mr. Horwitz’s terms, I could just as easily say that

A series should contain no unnecessary scenes, a novel no unnecessary series, characters and places, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

Before I even think about attending to my writing style, I have to make sure that each narrative element pulls its weight in moving the plot towards my main theme. To do that, I have to look at every last narrative bit and kill my darlings (or not).

Murder, I wrote.

Music brought to you by:
The Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go”
Brian McKnight, “Back at One”
Chaka Demus and Pliers, “Murder She Wrote”

* “Murder your darlings” is the original expression and Sir Quiller-Couch is the person who said it. Later, William Faulkner advised writers to “kill your darlings” – this is the more famous version. Stephen King has his own. There is even a movie called “Murder Your Darlings” (2013) that attributes the advice to Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe). Read about the fascinating life of this quotation in Forrest Wickman’s Slate article, “Who Really Said, ‘Kill Your Darlings’?


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