Kill Your Darlings

I finished my very first full-length manuscript in college, and it took me years to complete, writing five hundred words at a stretch in between classes, coursework, and hanging out with friends. It started as a short story, but I sensed more lurking beyond the point I’d originally envisioned as The End; and so I kept going…and going and going, until what I had on my hands was a YA horror epic of 160,000 words.

To be clear: that’s a hell of a word count. And the whole thing was riddled with amateur errors, because I hadn’t a clue what I was doing while I was doing it; and I had even less of a clue how to approach the next phase—the revising, polishing, and packaging you need to do to get agented and published. I spent a few more years rearranging sentences, but I never cut a word. Each one felt too precious, too important, and I couldn’t see the forest for the 160,00 trees. To put it bluntly, I’m lucky no agents ever read it.

Flash forward nearly ten years, and I was working on another novel—an adult fiction title—with a far more analytical approach. I had finally done enough research to know that most agents balk at a debut exceeding 100k words, and I was ready to take more care this go around. I worked from an outline for the first time, and the story blueprint kept me honest; there was no more rambling character backstory inserted wherever it occurred to me, and I stopped writing myself into corners by figuring out the plot as I went along. When I finished, the new manuscript was a trim (and acceptable) 90,000 words.

I landed an agent with that project, and during the submission process, she asked me to consider creating an alternate version of my novel. At that time, a lot of imprints in my genre had word count limits that topped out at about 60k—meaning that, to be considered, I’d have to cut an entire third of my manuscript. I resisted at first, but when it became clear that my original version wasn’t going to sell…well, dear reader, I rolled up my sleeves and cut my darlings down with the efficiency of Freddy Krueger. I eliminated characters and subplots, simplified motivations, and distilled the story to its bare essence.

Unfortunately, that version didn’t sell either. (And that version wasn’t even my last attempt at refashioning that story—I have, no exaggeration, eight different imprint-specific variations on file of my original manuscript.) But the experience was incredibly instructive; through eight successive slash-and-burn rewrites of my novel, I learned to tell the difference between indispensable and incidental. I learned how to tell what belonged to the story and what belonged to me.

I’ve been much better at revising my work since then, cutting anywhere from 5k to 20k words from a finished Draft Zero before finally feeling it was ready, and accepting edit notes with only the occasional flash of disappointment over cuts and rewrites. My forthcoming novel, DEATH PREFERS BLONDES, landed at a staggering 152,000 words when I completed the initial draft—but I cut it down to 123k before I submitted, because I’ve finally figured out that the only thing that’s precious about a story is the plot.

So here are my main tips on killing your darlings:

  • NOT ALL TEXT IS CREATED EQUAL. Every story needs atmosphere; but if you step back, you might be surprised to realize how few words are necessary to convey it to a reader. “We crossed to the porch and sat down, a warm breeze sweeping in from the west and making music with the chimes dangling from the eaves, while we revisited memories from our shared history together,” and, “We sat on the porch, a warm breeze stirring the chimes, and spoke about the past,” give the reader the same essential information, but one is sixteen words and one is thirty-five.
  • TRANSITIONS ARE NOT YOUR FRIEND. My early manuscripts were glutted with descriptions of how characters got from point A to point B—what they saw, what they heard, what they were thinking—but a lot of it was just me marking time, because I didn’t know how to artfully cut between different scenes. If your characters leave a party, and the next important scene takes place in the parking lot of a drug store, the biggest favor you can do for yourself (and the reader!) is to get to the drug store in as few words as possible.
  • DIALOGUE/TAGS. In the interests of realism, I clutter my Draft Zero dialogue a lot. “I, uh, well, I guess what I’m really trying to say is that…you know…” It’s the kind of rambling that real people do in real life, but it adds words that clutter the narrative and aren’t necessary. “I guess what I’m trying to say is,” gets the same point across. And then there’s all the “he said,” “she said,” stuff, which sometimes includes long adverbial clauses, or descriptive bits that don’t actually clarify anything. Really think about what’s important in a paragraph, a sentence, an image, and cut accordingly. Sometimes less is more.

These guidelines, of course, are my own—tailored to my personal weaknesses—and may not work for everyone; but I hope they lend possible ideas of where to start. What methods do you have for editing your own writing? What works for you?

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