Killing Your Darlings: A Mourner’s Guide

Posted: May 27, 2015 in Writing
Tags: , , , ,

Girl waving goodbye to her cat

Not to dredge up old wounds (or mix your own metaphors) … but perhaps when you were a child you had a pet that died, and your parents told you it had gone to a better place – a happy farm where animals played all day and had as much food as they wanted and mountains of chew toys. You knew your beloved fluffy was dead, but that wasn’t the point. You could imagine him in a better place, and because you could, fluffy lived on in your heart. Fluffy had become immortal.

As a writer, you often find yourself facing a dying scene or chapter. You know it’s not going to make it, and although you have bankrupted your creativity to pump life-support into it, you know deep down you’re going to have to let it go. You have to make peace with the fact that your darling is not going to be there with you when your book finds a publisher. Because the rest of your book needs you, and it’s not fair to the rest of your darlings that you spend all of the energy they deserve trying to prop up the one that isn’t going to make it.

Be strong, have a good cry, pull the plug, and then go celebrate its existence with the ones you still have. Because you can rest assured that your darling has gone on to a better place – a happy library where characters and scenes frolic all day and have as many readers as they want and mountains of novels they fit perfectly into. You know, scene heaven.

I call mine my “ideas folder.”  I couldn’t count the number of times I have resurrected killer phrases or setting descriptions or other choice tidbits. Sometimes I even bring them back into the same novel (it’s like a little miracle every time).

Right now I’m managing my grief by completely rewriting chapter one of my finished* novel. I have, in fact, made literally dozens of edits to the opening two pages of this novel (my daughter/co-author thinks I’m obsessed). I’ve run them though several different critiques sites, had a legion of beta readers, and entered them into all manner of query contests – paying careful attention to all of the feedback. By consensus there’s been something not quite right with every version. And it finally occurred to me that what I’ve been doing all this time has been triage and emergency surgery. Amputating a paragraph here, grafting on a bit of action there. Trying an untested and experimental new technique. Anything to make my novel stand out from the crowd. It had become a Frankenstein.

It was time to let the patient die with some dignity. So I’m starting the novel in a completely different place. Actually beginning with a blank piece of paper (okay, screen), and putting brand new words on it. And – Oh! – what freedom. All of the holes I’ve been trying to patch I’ve simple written away. Things I explained before I now show. There’s voice, there’s promise, there’s tension, and I’m clearly establishing the genre right up front. All of the things I talked about a few weeks ago when I posted Crafting the Killer Beginning. Want a taste?

Okay – just a nibble.

Chapter One: Princess Broken Wire

A pixie. Obviously.

The skinny girl skipping past me had short blonde hair and an upturned nose. She seemed to be smiling at everything she and her parents passed as they strolled though the craft fair. Definitely a pixie. I made another tick mark on my tally sheet, then hid it underneath my homework.

My shoulder blades itched as if any second Mom was coming back here to check on me. But I could hear her out front, telling a customer about an African Violet in one of Dad’s new ceramic bowls. I was safe.

I picked up a colored pencil and squinted at my sixth grade medieval history project. The tallest tower of Windsor Castle needed more brown. The tower where I would live as a princess, had there been any justice in the world and my dreams ever came true. They say, “Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it.” Yeah, I’m not seeing the downside, there.

“Look at me! I’m a superhero!” My little brother, Thomas, climbed up onto our picnic table and jumped right in the middle of my drawing, sending pencils and glitter pens flying. He still wore the red cape he’d gotten for his fourth birthday.

“Thomas! Knock it off! You’re wrecking my project.”

“Hey!” He balled up his fist and struck his fiercest warrior pose. “You’re a bad guy. Fight with me, bad guy.”

“Not now, buddy. I’m doing my homework. Go bother Dad.”

“Never!” He whacked me on the head with his “sword,” part of a foam rubber pool toy he’d found. “Ha!”

“Ow!” I really wanted to hit him back, but I knew he would just think I was playing with him and then he’d never leave me alone. This happened about nine hundred and forty-seven times a day.

“There you are!” Dad burst through the curtain separating our private area from the rest of our booth. He lumbered forward like a pot-bellied giant, his big hands groping the air with pretend menace. “I’ve got you now, Space Dude!” He winked at me – Dad to the rescue.

Thomas squealed with laughter and leapt off the table in a single, heroic bound. He danced around, beating on Dad’s shins with his sword until Dad lifted him up over his head. “Come on, hero. Let’s let your sister finish her homework.”

“Jet pack – activate!” Thomas dropped his sword and spread his arms out to the sides as Dad flew him out of our back area. Thomas’ rocket noises faded as they ducked back through the curtain.

Sigh. I gathered up my glitter pens and took a critical look at my drawing of the castle. Something was definitely missing. That’s when I spotted the ogre.

I could just see him, standing at the end of the alley behind our booth, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khakis and gnawing on a big, greasy turkey leg. He had a hook nose and black hair, and one bushy eyebrow all the way across his jutting forehead. Black hair curled on his long arms and legs, too.

Of course to everybody else he looked like a regular guy. You know how some people can look up at the clouds and find elephants and pirate ships and bunny rabbits? Me, I look at people and see faeries and dwarves and trolls. And they’re everywhere.

#

Of course, you’re the first person to see it.  I haven’t finished the whole chapter, so even my co-author hasn’t seen it yet.  Which means nobody has given me any feedback.  So I may need to tweak it a bit.  I’ll let you know after the next round of query contests.


* “Finished” being a relative term, obviously.

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Comments
  1. Fun post. I save all my dead writing in a folder too. It makes it easier to kill them off if I know they aren’t really gone. Very rarely do they return from writing heaven, but miracles happen.

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  2. Bobbie says:

    Wow, this is a great beginning. I would definitely read on. Congratulations.

    Like

  3. kaphri says:

    Wow, great beginning. I’d definitely read on. Congratulations.

    Like

  4. […] Killing Your Darlings: A Mourner’s Guide May 27, 2015 […]

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  5. Hi John, I enjoyed your first chapter re-write, but I have to admit that nothing really grabbed me until the last couple of paragraphs. That’s when I really got interested for the first time. So I have a suggestion: Start there. For example, it might read something like this:

    “Nobody else spotted the ogre, but I did.

    I could just see him, standing at the end of the alley, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khakis and gnawing on a big, greasy turkey leg. He had a hook nose and black hair, and one bushy eyebrow all the way across his jutting forehead. Black hair curled on his long arms and legs, too. Yep, definitely an ogre.

    Of course to everybody else he looked like a regular guy. You know how some people can look up at the clouds and find elephants and pirate ships and bunny rabbits? Me, I look at people and see faeries and dwarves and trolls. And they’re everywhere.”

    Like

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