Posts Tagged how to self-edit

Writers, can’t kill your darlings? Read this

You know the situation. A beta reader or editor says a precious part of your book has to go. You resist, strenuously. They fix you with an unforgiving eye and say: ‘kill your darlings’.

Sometimes we resist a change for good reason. The character/scene/description/flashback/whatever might be needed. It explains something, or adds resonance, or fills a gap in the story, though perhaps it doesn’t yet do its job. That’s fixable.

We also resist changes that will cause a hot mess, though we’ll probably make them when we’ve mustered the courage.

Those aren’t darlings.

What are darlings?

Darlings are things we cling to, with especial defiance, when we shouldn’t. They’re anything we’re keeping mainly because we like them, not because they are necessary for the book.

We all do it. We’ll do it on our first book and yea unto our umpteenth.

So why are darlings such a blind spot? Here’s my theory, from experience at both ends of the editing sword. Darlings carry emotional baggage.

  • We might keep a darling because it’s based on something personal.
  • We might keep a darling that’s totally invented, but it took a long time to draft or edit and because of that investment, it’s going in the goddarned book.

But look at those reasons. Are they about the reader’s experience? Or are they about us, the writer?

What now?

Assuming the beta readers are right, what are the options? Sit down, this is painful.

  • Remove the darling.
  • Change it so it better serves the book.

For some authors, the second option is every bit as scandalous as the first. And this is another way you can recognise a darling, should you wish to. It’s sacred. It must not be changed.

Truly I get it. A story isn’t a purely mechanical process, like building a bicycle. It’s a work of emotion too, a flow between the reader’s heart and ours. Our empathy, our gut quirks, give our book its distinctive life. All this is often beyond analysis. But our emotional contribution must be used carefully. Sometimes the most heartfelt parts of a book don’t touch the reader in the way they touch us. They’re muddling noise. Or embarrassing self-indulgence. Or boring. That’s what the beta readers are saying. They’re not feeling the vibe.

Still we resist. Dig our heels in.

I am NOT taking that out or changing it.

Loyalty to the darling runs deep.

It’s a tug of love. So here’s a more helpful question.

Which do we love better? The darling or the whole book?

It’s a hard call. I’m just as guilty as anyone of keeping stuff for bad, muddled reasons. You should see the outtakes files for my novels. But I’ve always found this: there comes a point where the manuscript seems to mature. When the book is working well, I appreciate what it needs as a whole. Then, I’m able to make the tougher decisions. I love the book more than I love a scene I’ve clung to for a long time, or a character or a description.

How you will know them

Here are a few more things I’ve learned about darlings.

They lurk in deep disguise. They often come from our very earliest workings on the book – for instance, a scene that helped us start the writing in the first place, or the first things we wrote about a character. They seem to be set in stone. But they don’t have to be. They might be scaffold – vital at first, unnecessary for the final piece.

A darling might come from our actual life, a secret ingredient of real experience or knowledge. This is another reason why they’re so hard to remove, because they are a kind of proof that we know what we’re writing about, that they came from something we learned first hand.Our vision and understanding of the book might be intrinsically tied to these darlings.

They once had an important purpose, but do they suit the book now? Has the book outgrown them?

These kinds of darlings don’t show their true nature until late on. It’s as if the editing process is a long relationship. In the first flush, we welcome everything we create for the book, especially the parts with the biggest life. (Darlings are often startling, dramatic, distinctive.) We’re discovering. From these, we might make numerous inspired and rewarding decisions. Those were important, but we don’t always need the material they came from.

I promise, because this always happens to me, that late in the process, you acquire a level of clarity and vision that will amaze you. When you’re very sure of the book, and of yourself in its skin, you’ll know when something no longer fits, even though it has been personally important to you in the book’s making. You recognise it strikes an unsuitable note, or tunes the reader wrongly, or muddies an important moment, or halts the emotional action. That’s when we can judge:

Which do I love more? This one precious part or the whole book?

There’s plenty more about killing your darlings in Nail Your Novel, and the accompanying workbook.

If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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After the red pen – a pain-free way to tackle beta reader comments

Last month I was preparing for beta reader comments on the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest.

I’ve now received them, so I thought it might be useful to write a follow-up post for how I tackle them.

I was very lucky – and relieved – that the verdict was overwhelmingly positive. The book works. Nevertheless, each reader found minor queries, which is entirely expected.

Some are easy to solve – a change of word or phrase. They won’t upset the flow. But some will be more disruptive, requiring explanations to be unpicked, dialogue to be altered, scene choreography to change.  Those notes are more stressful.

But I have a strategy!

1 – Merge everything

My first step is to merge all the comments onto one Word doc. Not every query needs to be acted on, unless the reader is a specialist in a factual area, then their comments obviously have extra weight. But I pay serious attention if more than one person raises a particular problem.

Then I get to work. I split the edit into two phases.

2a – the factual and literal stage.

I chop in the new material, amend inaccuracies, add clarifications. Change events if necessary. I keep it rough and obvious. I change the text colour to red so I can instantly see it needs better treatment, like a sore thumb.

2b – the flow stage.

Here’s where I integrate the change properly, re-edit the scene, consider if the characters’ reactions should change, decide if there are more consequences to be stitched in later.

In phase 2b, I might decide that some of the 2a additions aren’t necessary. They might be too literal. Or they might need more oblique treatment. Sometimes a reader’s pain point is not caused in the place they registered it. Like sciatica, it might be referred from elsewhere.

This two-phase system allows me to give all the comments a fair hearing, to accept that something needs to be adjusted, without panicking about the wreckage it might leave, without worrying about the wrong things at the wrong time. It often brings me to better insights, to better understand what I’m making.

I’m just finishing phase 1. My manuscript now has new pieces, chopped in like rough surgery. But I’m excited about healing the joins. I know it’s now more authentic, effective, solid, reliable, which is what I want it to be.

PS I’m teaching a masterclass on back story at Jane Friedman’s online lecture hall! July 1st, book now!

PPS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

How do you integrate reader comments? Share below!

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Are you bored? One writing rule you really need

‘Try to leave out the bits the reader will skip,’ said Elmore Leonard.

Sure, Mr L, but how do we identify them?

I thought about this recently when I read a manuscript that was heavy on technical detail. When I delivered my verdict – that many of these passages lost my interest – the author said:

‘I know what you mean – when I read other books on the subject, my eyes often glaze over at the technical passages.’

How interesting that he said that.

When editing our own work, one of the keenest senses we have is our gut instinct. Is it holding our attention? Or does it seem muddled, unconfident, lacking clarity? If we’re even just a tad dissatisfied, this means the passage needs more work.

Certainly, this requires a lot of stamina. Draft upon draft. I wrote a post about it here, when I was editing Lifeform Three.

This is a rule

There are few guarantees in making art. It’s hard to produce absolute formulae for what will work and what won’t. For every general principle – do show, don’t tell – there’s a valid anti-rule.

But this is one situation that does have an absolute rule.

Writer, if you are bored, the reader will be … oh do stay awake at the back.

This applies whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction.

So you’ve realised a passage in your book is boring you. Hooray. Now what?

How to not be boring

First, examine why you’re including this material. Is it out of a sense of duty? Is it an element you’ve seen in other books with a similar readership?

If so, do you have to be like those other books? Perhaps you do, and we’ll come to that next. But first, consider whether you could delete. Yes. Whip it out. Nuke it.

However, it’s more likely that some of this soporific sludge will be necessary for reader comprehension, or to maintain the book’s authority. What do you do?

The answer is obvious, isn’t it? You resolve not to be dull.

Three solutions

Realise this: you don’t have to try to be like the other books that bored you. You can offer something different or more interesting.

Channel your best bits

Look for other passages in your book where the narrative has a more lively spirit. That’s you at your best. Drink their energy. Often I find that an author who sends me to sleep in some sections is sparky and brilliant in others. They need to channel that all the time. Perhaps ask a reader to pick some out for you.

Next, rewrite your lifeless passages with the same outlook and voice. Had you realised your persona varied so much?

Channel a muse

Here’s another approach. Look at other books whose style keeps you unusually entertained. We all have writers whose style perks us up, even if they’re describing the colour of their socks. Try and say it the way they would.

Write for an unforgiving reader

Sometimes it helps to write for an imagined audience. In this case, imagine a friend who won’t tolerate much detail about your pet subject.

I have several pet subjects that end up in my books, and I’ve learned to apply the Husband Test. Husband Dave has a shrug level of interest in some of my deepest curiosities.

One example is the remnants of demolished stately homes. I could keep myself amused all day with them, looking for the lines of old walls in a cow pasture, a front door step half buried in grass, an ornate gateway that seems to lead nowhere. When I wrote about a particularly enchanting site in Not Quite Lost, I knew it would be easy to lose the reader so I kept Dave in mind as I edited. How would I get him interested in them? Something in these buried remains felt universal and exciting to me. What was it? I had to reach beyond my own intrinsic interest (walls! doorsteps! gateways!) to a deeper level (the sediment of passing time! vanished people!).

Imagine your least indulgent reader. Write as though you had to keep their attention.

Thanks for the sleeping person pic Sean Kelly on Flickr. Thanks for the sleeping people pic: Pixabay.

Over to you! Is this a problem you’ve identified in your own work? How did you overcome it?

PS There’s loads more on how to keep readers interested in my book on plot

PPS Speaking of edits etc, here’s what I’m working on at the moment

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