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?

10 Responses to Kill Your Darlings

  1. Alexia Chantel Jun 18 2018 at 10:21 am #

    Whew! Those are some impressive word counts! I think if I ever reached above 100,000 I’d have a hard time chopping too. I’m more of a fill in the blank writer since I prefer to start with an outline and keep adding/filling in the blank spaces, so I find myself having to layer in more after I hit ‘the end’. I enjoyed reading your post and getting a glimpse of what writing looks like through your eyes!

    • Caleb Jun 19 2018 at 2:12 am #

      I know other authors who draft the same way–with a lower word count that they beef up in revisions–and I don’t know which way I think would be more difficult! It’s proof that there’s not “correct” way to write, at the very least!

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Jun 18 2018 at 11:05 am #

    I guess it depends on how you write. I’m very spare in my writing, and usually end up adding words with edits, since a lot of material I have in my head didn’t make it to the page. My editors tell me to make the importance of scenes clearer. Sometimes as I reread for the 20th time I think of a sudden colorful bit that really livens a scene, and stick that in.
    I use dialog tags, but only if there is no other way to indicate who the speaker is. I prefer to combine dialog and action, so who is talking is indicated by who is acting. If all the guy is doing is drinking coffee I’ll say ‘he said’ rather than mention the coffee yet again.
    For me the important things are the characters, not the plot. The story is characters in motion, and they discover the plot as they move. A story that’s only about plot is a story that can be thrown away after it’s been read once, but characters grow and change every time.

    • Caleb Jun 19 2018 at 2:15 am #

      Using action to signify who’s speaking is (in my opinion, anyway!) both an elegant and useful solution. Actions do so much to communicate mood and tone, and help alleviate the repetitiveness of “he said, she said, they said,” etc.

  3. Kwame Ivery Jun 18 2018 at 6:51 pm #

    I respectfully disagree with your point about Dialogue. The example you give–“I, uh, well, I guess what I’m really trying to say is that…you know…”–doesn’t indicate cluttering; it indicates coloring. It’s a great way to add color & flavor & shading to the speaker’s personality.

    Someone who says “I, uh, well, I guess what I’m really trying to say is that…you know…” is VERY different from someone who says “I guess what I’m trying to say is…” The former character is much less confident, more insecure, more hesitant than the latter character. Dialogue is the tool which shows that element of personality.

    • Caleb Jun 19 2018 at 2:37 am #

      Everyone’s mileage will vary, of course. Rambling dialogue fragments do indeed communicate insecurity and hesitance, as you say, but those same traits can (I feel) be just as efficiently established through tone and body language with more economy of phrasing. “He blushed,” for example, is an action that suggests embarrassment and insecurity, and could preface, “I guess what I’m trying to say is…” to create a similar mood with five fewer words than the original.

      But there are as many ways to craft a story as there are storytellers, and no one writer’s method will work for all. I present this example because, for me, dialogue is one area where I’m prone to rambling fragments–and because, with a zero draft coming in at over 150k words, cuts are necessary. If I can remove “I, uh, well, uh, um,” from every page, at 400 pages that amounts to a reduction of 2000 words.

    • NICOLE PARTON Jul 27 2018 at 10:50 am #

      Kwame Ivery and Caleb’s responses to the “I, uh, well, uh, um” question relate to #Othervoices. Today’s agenting/publishing push appears to be the recognition and mainstreaming of those marginalized through appearance, facility with “our” language (however defined) or health challenges. It seems unrealistic that “I, uh, well, uh, um” would appear on “every page.” Kwame’s point about presenting realist speech is excellent, as long as it’s not over-used. I know you both agree with that. I hope the day will come when we don’t NEED to consciously include “other voices” – that such inclusivity will naturally and automatically bring the hesitant, the ungrammatical, the silver-tongued, and the stutterers from the “real world” into the “real word.”

  4. Julie Eshbaugh Jun 18 2018 at 8:56 pm #

    Great post Caleb! I soooo agree with your point about transitions. I used to struggle getting my characters from scene to scene, but I studied the work of some of my favorite authors to see how they did it, and I improved so much.
    There’s an adage to cut the parts readers skim over, and remembering that helps me, too. 🙂

    • Caleb Jun 19 2018 at 2:53 am #

      Thanks, Julie!! And that adage is a *perfect* way to describe it. Shifting from pantsing to plotting helped my transition problem IMMENSELY, but I still find myself getting a little too baroque in the way I approach my stories’ downbeats, and having to trim them with a very critical eye afterward!

  5. Neelu Jun 19 2018 at 1:07 pm #

    I find your post so relatable…These words that you call trees actually feel like my children!
    So you can probably see how deeply affected I am if I have to cut down a line or paragraph or for that matter even a single slide in a slideshow!
    I do thank you and am hoping I find enough inspiration to get down to brass tacks with my draft(s).
    Do you have any tips about writing erotic scenes though? I find intimate scenes quite challenging and mostly avoid them at all costs!

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