It’s time for me to kill my darlings.
The fiction writers out there are nodding their heads.
For the rest of you, an explanation. Writing a novel is an arduous process and sometimes, when you are in edit mode, you discover that a character or a passage or a scene or a chapter, while interesting or beautiful or the best damn thing you’ve ever written, may not serve the story you are trying to tell. So, the advice is to be ruthless and cut that magnificent crap outta there. Use it in a different story or keep it as a reminder of your talent, but DO NOT LEAVE IT IN THE STORY.
William Faulkner said it, “In writing, you must kill your darlings”, and before him the Cornish writer, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, said it, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”
I know it’s unhealthy, but my novel is my fourth child. I have the two daughters, the dog, and the novel. No matter how frustrated or angry I get, I would never even consider hurting, much less killing, those first three darlings of mine. So how can I begin to chop off a leg or an arm or a finger from darling number four?
She is full of life, after several years of gestation. And those first few years were downright painful. Yet we pushed our way through. Together.
When my kids went to school, I didn’t go back to freelancing because my time was limited and I had a novel to write. I was lucky to be in a position of not having to earn money and it wasn’t like I was going to be diddling away my time. In those first three or four years, I wrote hundreds of thousands of words in an attempt to find the story buried deep inside me. I sensed its existence but didn’t have a defined plot or clear characters or any experience writing an 80,000 word story.
The thing is when you don’t have any structure and you don’t really know what you are doing, it takes a long time to figure out how to move forward. But I was committed, and after much work, I began to see the story take shape. The characters had faces and bodies and opinions. I put them in situations and they behaved in a way consistent with who they had become. They started to move in their own directions and I found ways to bring their paths together.
Five years passed and everybody wanted to know when I was going to be finished with my novel. And then I was done. With the first draft. I held it in my arms and rocked it to sleep. After all that birthing, I wasn’t quite ready for the crying and the diapers and the learning how to walk and talk. I just wanted to put it to sleep for awhile. So I did. For a couple of months.
Then I dug in. I edited brutally. I changed tenses. I changed point of view. I rearranged scenes and chapters. I took out unnecessary characters. I cut, cut, cut until I couldn’t cut anymore. I thought at the time I was killing my darlings just the way I was supposed to do. And then, after three trusted readers read the full manuscript and offered mostly constructive criticism, I took out my scissors again. I wrote some new parts. I deleted some old. More darling killing, but now I see, not quite enough.
Last year, for the first time, I put my baby out in the world. I submitted it to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest and made it to the quarterfinals. From 5,000 entries to 250. I received encouraging praise from the reviewers at Amazon: “It is subtle in its tone yet rich in its ability to convey emotions. Very well written.” The Publisher’s Weekly reviewer said: “The manuscript’s strong sense of heart renders it a compelling and complex story of family.”
My family and friends said this was proof that it was good enough to get published and I believed them. All of me except that little voice that I tried to ignore through the next steps toward publication. That little voice was quietly reminding me that I was trying to tell too many stories in one novel. Not as many as Jonathan Franzen tells but I’m not Franzen. First novelists are less likely to get away with the same things that established novelists do. And, still, I’m not Franzen. I write pretty well but I’m a first-time novelist.
Slowly, I’ve gotten up the nerve to send queries to agents. A few quick rejections came in but I received a fair amount of interest. When an agent asks to see your full manuscript, it feels good. They liked the first couple of chapters, they liked the premise, they want to see it all.
The first agent to ask for a full manuscript came back saying my writing was lovely but I wasn’ t the right fit for them. This is one of those difficult to decipher responses. Is this just a nice way to say it sucks? Or is it really not the right fit for them?
Since then, I’ve had three other agents ask for full manuscripts. I pat myself on the back but the little voice still hasn’t gone away. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthy book already; I’m hard on myself as many writers are. I just wish the little voice would shut up.
And then today, I received a note back from one of those agents. She said she enjoyed my writing and was very taken with the first chapter, with the woman she thought was the protagonist, but then she laid in to me . . . kindly but honestly.
I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. Her primary problem with the book was almost to the word what my little voice has been telling me and I’ve been ignoring. I’ve ignored it because I put so much of my heart and soul into this book and the idea of reworking it again is overwhelming. I’ve already started plotting and developing characters for a new novel (Notice that this time I’m plotting first. Brilliant idea, huh?)
Another agent may come back and offer representation for novel #1. Or may come back and say if you make these changes, I’ll take another look at it. That is what the agent I heard from today said. “If you choose to revise this, I’d happily read it again.”
I’ve known for awhile that if I want to make this novel the best that it can be, I needed to pull out the scissors and knives once again. I know where the surgery needs to be done.
Is it crazy to go back when you’ve already gone forward? In this case, I don’t think so.
Now I’ve got to go. There’s killing to be done.
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