While I am not a perfect writer, nor a perfect editor, I do think there is one thing I have learned to do relatively well: kill my darlings. As writers, we must be the advocates and fans of our own work; confidence is key to success. However, when a writer is so in love with and attached to their words that they can neither handle criticism nor effectively edit, it’s a problem. I have seen writers cry over constructive suggestions, throw tantrums (including but not limited to “goodbye cruel fandom!” in the fanfiction sphere), cut all ties with the beta reader or, in many cases, simply write their story and ignore any and all feedback for edits, then post it as is. It’s frustrating enough to see stubbornly self-enamored writers in fandom (writing fanfiction), but if you’re trying to write a novel for professional publication, the inability to engage critically (and sometimes brutally) with your own writing can hurt your “product,” cost you a relationship with an agent (if you can land one in the first place) and make you publishing kryptonite. (editors don’t like drama queens or cry babies)
Sometimes we have to kill the things we love: a turn of phrase, a clever joke, a scene, a character, an entire plotline. Even when it hurts (and it can really hurt), editing is worth it because it makes your book stronger. It doesn’t matter if the joke is funny or the line is beautiful if it doesn’t jibe logically, slows pacing or is out of character. Your job as a writer is to remove all the “seams” of your writing so the reader can fully engage with your story. If you don’t revise properly, that’s not going to happen.
These are some tips for how to be a champion darling-killer.
- Find a team of thoughtful, talented, honest critique partners. This isn’t easy; I went through a lot of trial and error to find CPs, and many of my CPs I knew from real life (I was lucky to know some talented writers/editors that had the skill set I needed). For me, it was valuable to find people who I knew were passionate about my ideas and liked me as a person, so when they tore apart my work, I knew it wasn’t personal. You can find this in “stranger” CPs, too–I like to test out the relationship before committing, and have lots of non-book chat to get to know my CPs.
- But seriously, find CPs worth their salt. Not all criticism is created equal. There is this ridiculous notion that all opinions are valid. Nope; they’re not. Frankly, it’s the reason traditional publishing is worth it: gatekeepers are GOOD because they are experts in their field and their opinion matters. Not every CP needs to have written their own book, but one good test of “do I value this person’s opinion?” is have you read their novel, and are they well-versed in the craft of writing? If they’re not a writer, are they well-read in the genre? (ask people what they’re favorite YA books are; that will tell you a lot) Educated in the field on which they are critiquing? (historical accuracy, science, grammar & usage)
- Learn to divorce yourself/self worth from your writing. It’s important–though not easy–to realize that you are not your book. It may feel that way, but someone saying that a character doesn’t work for them, or the pacing was slow, or the phrasing was overwritten in places is not their way of saying “you are a terrible person and I hate you.” Most CPs are trying to make your book better. Toughen up.
- Save everything. Make copies. It becomes much easier to brutally slay darlings if you know there’s always a back-up if you change your mind. Or just that your best witticisms are saved somewhere for you to read on those long, lonely nights. Frankly, in revision I often would take something out and then later find a place to work it back in, or reference the passage I wrote previously to salvage from it the thing I liked (if not the exact joke/phrasing). This is also useful because what one person might have you cut, another might ask you to restore. I keep a file in my Scrivener file for scenes or bits I’ve discarded, so they are always there. And each time I embarked on a major revision, I “saved as” and essentially started a new Scrivener document so the previous one was fully intact, just in case.
- Know that it doesn’t make you a bad writer if you (or someone else) hates something you wrote, and that often, things are BETTER, not worse, the second time we write them. I ended up deleting whole chapters in my novel and rewriting them. Nine times out of ten, the rewritten chapter was better than the original (and with some clever revision, I could salvage my all-time favorite jokes XD). You may not believe it, but have faith the first few times until you grow confidence in your ability to throw something away… and then do it better the second time.
- Don’t be afraid to start over. Following on the previous point: sometimes you have to throw it all away and start over. It could be the whole book (egads!), or large sections of your book. Embrace it. Save copies of the original. Drink lots of wine.
- Don’t be afraid to do terrible things to your characters. If people are telling you your character is boring, or they couldn’t connect to them, or the pacing was slow: look honestly at what you are doing to your characters. You might be too attached to make them dynamic, give them voice or create conflicts that drive the pace of your novel. Your characters should have flaws (and proper character arcs!), relationships should hit speed bumps, sometimes people have to die or become horribly disfigured (authors who maim their characters, you get a fist bump from me).
- Less is more (usually). In the struggle to find our unique writer’s voice and be a “good writer,” many of us end up totally over-writing. Don’t get bent out of shape by brutal line-edits or comments on “too many adjectives.” What can often kill a book, and many CPs can’t quite articulate, is melodramatic, over-writing, especially in dramatic scenes. Scale back purple prose, shorten/simplify your sentences… but write vividly (just without all that extra muck).
- Show, don’t tell. I’m a tell-er. A chronic, ugly tell-er. Telling is not an inherently bad writing style; in fact, a good tell-er can write immediate and interesting action scenes. But nothing is more frustrating and leads to more disconnection from the characters/story, than an entire book of telling. Write the way you write. And then if you are a tell-er or are told you are doing too much telling, BRUTALLY REWRITE EVERYTHING. Don’t get upset or angry at the person telling you you need to “show, don’t tell.” Just dig in and fix it. I always write once the way I naturally want to, and then go back through and line edit my own work, changing out declarations for descriptions, weaving in emotional responses and “the five senses.” (also falls under this: fixing white room syndrome) I still tell too much, but don’t be truculent and refuse to even *try* to show more.
- Gain some distance. Sometimes we need some distance from our story in order to engage with it critically. This can mean not touching your book for months before rereading and tackling revisions. If you don’t have months (three+ months is ideal, IMO), even a few weeks can be useful if you need to have a tighter turn-around on your revisions. When you do go back, try to read as if it is not your book. How would you advise a stranger?
- Bring in fresh eyes. Speaking of, sometimes it’s a good idea to bring in a stranger. If your CPs have been around since the genesis of your book, or have read it multiple times (BLESS THEM), they may have as much perspective fatigue as you. Either seek out new critique partners or carefully utilize your critique partners in revision waves–CP 1 reads draft one, but CP2 doesn’t read until revision three, etc. A reader coming totally cold to your book can bring up points you never would have thought of in a million years. Plus, every CP has a different style/skill set, so a new CP may add a whole new layer to edits. If you’re worried about telling, bring in a CP whose expertise is telling you where you need to show, etc.
- Learn the difference between “good hate” and “bad hate.” It is perfectly natural, in the writing/revising cycle, to have periods where you hate everything. The writing is trite, the characters are awful, that kissing scene NEEDS TO DIE, this book is TERRIBLE! Step back, take a deep breath and regroup. Sometimes, abjectly hating something is a sign: it needs to go. But sometimes hating something is your brain being EVIL, and trying to trick you into giving up. In cases like these, distance and/or an emergency CP session are required.
There are, of course, specific editorial tactics that can help you to “kill your darlings,” but this is a start on the more abstract tricks. They’re not easy, and engaging critically with your work (while not tipping over into a catatonic state of hatred of all endeavors!) takes practice. But it is worth it. Unless you can edit well, you will never produce your best work. And the best work is worth it.