Recently JK Rowling made an admission that had Harry Potter fans all atwitter (and a-Twitter, too): Hermione should have ended up with Harry, not Ron. Why didn't the more obvious--and frankly more believable, to my mind--romantic pairing happen?  According to Rowling, it was "for reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it."

As a first-time novelist struggling through the revision process, this, to me, was the headline. JK Rowling is famous for her intricate plotting, and for having worked out the structure of all seven books before even beginning to write the first one. But a commitment to a plot made well in advance had caused her to lead two of her main characters into a relationship even she felt wasn't true to who they were--or who they became as she was writing them. Somewhere in the revision process JK Rowling was faced with a choice: kill the plot as she had first imagined it, or strike a false note in one of the most critical relationships in the book. She chose the latter. Which just goes to show you how incredibly hard killing the plot as you've imagined it is. (So hard that, undoubtedly, it was not a conscious "choice.") As William Faulkner memorably observed, "In writing, you must kill all your darlings."

It is hard. For the past three months, I have been engaged in the arduous, painful, nearly impossible work of killing my darlings. (I just killed the last one, the one I'd been most determined to save, yesterday.) Which may come as a surprise to those of you who have been following my progress here--since this summer I blogged about finishing the book, blogged about sending it out, blogged about how hard it was not to privilege critical feedback over praise, and finally, triumphantly, blogged about getting a deal with a Big Five publisher and instead choosing to publish with She Writes Press. The next blog, logically, ought to have been an announcement of my pub date. But instead I am here to tell you: my book isn't done yet. (Which means it will probably come out next year, rather than this fall as I'd planned.)

Not as in, the manuscript needs a polish. As in, over the last three months I have cut it by more than 20,000 words. I think it is safe to say it is the hardest thing, in writing this book, I've done so far. Because what needed to be cut were my darlings. Things I had imagined would be in the book from the moment I started writing it in my head. Plot points, scenes, dialogue, character descriptions and even wisecracks I had written, rewritten, polished, edited and perfected more times than I can count. Things I wanted to hold on to so much that my resistance to their exorcism defied logic--even my own. Because I knew they were in there. I knew the places where things were bumpy, where things dragged on, where things seemed a little too strained, the places where my book and my characters were working so hard you could hear the puffing and smell the sweat. I just really hoped nobody else would notice, because I didn't know how to fix them. More truthfully, maybe, I didn't want to fix them. I wanted to be done.

A dear friend of mine, however, is to blame, and therefore forever to be thanked, for lining my darlings up against the wall and instructing me to shoot them. She is a playwright and a screenwriter, and one of the finest editors and teachers of writing I know. But unfortunately she didn't get around to reading my manuscript or giving me feedback until months after everybody else did. (In her defense, though she needs none, she had a baby in May.) It was December 9th, exactly. I remember the date. The first thing she said was, "So....there are some big things, and then some little things. Do you want to start with the big things?" 

I've never been one to start small. 

A big thing was my main character's job. Or not so much her job, exactly, but an incredibly detailed, throughly built-out backstory and plot about her job, as well as a job crisis that I thought impacted everything else in the book, and therefore absolutely could not be cut...aka Chapter Two. Not a paragraph or a scene, but Chapter Two

What follows are the five steps to killing your darlings. Unsurprisingly, they hew very closely to the five stages of grief.

1) Denial. When my friend pointed out this flaw in my book to me, I said, "I see what you're saying. But do you think it has to go?" She responded that if I was really set on it, I could keep it, and the book would survive. But then she said, ever so gently, "Though it's a little hard, at least for me, once I've seen something like this, not to fix it." Naturally I couldn't unsee the problem either, nor did I want to--I am enough of a professional not to want to do that! I could, on the other hand, choose to believe that Chapter Two did not have to be cut. Couldn't it just be fixed up? Spruced up? Changed around? Asked nicely to be better, funnier, and more relevant, pretty please?

I did this dance with my darling for about two weeks, and on several occasions was reduced to tears.

On to step two.

2) Anger, aka Revision Rage. See above mention of being reduced to tears. Tears were not just of sadness.

3) Bargaining. At some point I gave in to what I'd always known was inevitable: the blank page. I had to cut Chapter Two as I knew it and start over. There was no other way! But my darlings pleaded and cajoled. Couldn't just one of the original paragraphs come back and stay as it was? Couldn't this one line describing the interior of the boss's office survive? Would it really be wise to part with such a witty exchange of darling dialogue when you could cut and paste it so very easily right...back...here?

After a few weeks of this, I ended up with, you guessed it, Chapter Two again -- but worse. Like your darling, but back from the dead with zippers in her forehead, trying to masquerade as the darling you loved before but all wrong, and making you vaguely sick just looking at her.

4) Depression. It is no fun seeing your darling looking like a Frankensteined Zombie and knowing not only that you are responsible (and that you spent several weeks of valuable writing time doing something you knew you shouldn't be doing, but couldn't manage not to do anyway), but you are now going to have to kill her all over again.

5) Acceptance, aka Writing. Back to the blank page. I did not delete my darling, but rather safely cut and pasted her into a folder I labeled "Deleted Chapters," so she was still there if I needed her. (Part of what is so hard about killing your darlings is the fear that at some later date, when you are busily massacring other darlings, you will discover that those other darlings were the ones you needed after all.) On to doing the work. And it can be bloody. It is hardly surgical, that's for sure, because the bits that are wrong cannot simply be excised without any impact on the rest. Get rid of a character, for instance, as I did, and it is necessary to comb the entire body of work for signs of her; change a major plot point, as I was forced to, and the effects ripple throughout and must be attended to, every last one of them.

It's difficult, plodding, meticulous work. But it's joyous,too. Why? Because as a writer, your darlings aren't any one sentence, or scene, or plot twist, or even character. You have only one darling, and she is your book. 

Sometimes you have to kill for her.

**The photo is of my fourth grade son's first self-edited manuscript. I think it goes without saying that mommy was very, very proud.

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Comment by Ginger McKnight-Chavers on February 28, 2014 at 9:31am
I loved this piece, Kamy - it so articulates what I'm going through in my millionth edit of my novel. I'm going to have to put a beloved, brilliant-in-my-mind in that possibly-temporary-probably-permanently-deleted-scenes folder as see if it helps the pacing of the novel in the way my editor suggests. She was kind when she suggested I kill it - said "maybe you can move it to much later in the story, if you need it". But I'm afraid the writing may be (is) on the wall. I have had tears and have wasted a lot of time struggling with this. Thanks and good luck!
Comment by Kamy Wicoff on February 26, 2014 at 9:42am

I like that Linda! Hopefully I am not headed for a divorce. :)

Comment by Linda Verji on February 20, 2014 at 6:40am

Writing the first draft is always a wedding! The revision is more like a separation while you try to fix each other and hope that you don't end up giving up. Hurts! Hurts! Hurts!

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on February 18, 2014 at 6:52pm

Just saw this from an interview with Lorrie Moore in the Times, wish I'd seen it before I wrote this but maybe I will do a follow-on post...

“How a novel finishes, is there’s a moment when you know it has problems, and you don’t know how to fix them. That’s when you’re done.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/18/books/lorrie-moores-new-book-is-a...

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on February 18, 2014 at 5:53pm

Thank all of you, again, for these responses -- I love logging on and reading your comments and sharing (vicariously) in your experiences. @Laurel I think the question you pose, "does it move the story forward", is absolutely the critical one. I also think putting things in a file somewhere can help tremendously with the painful process of "killing" them.

Comment by Ardyth DeBruyn on February 17, 2014 at 3:17pm

Great post, Kami! You've described my exact feelings and torment over the last six months with my own novel... only it wasn't an author friend but my baby brother who did the deed of forcing me into revision slaughter. Humiliating, but also fitting, as I wrote the book originally for his 11 year-old self. Now an opinionated young adult, he understands the heart of the story as much as I do, and I think that's what makes a beta reader like this so pivotal and important, because it's someone who really KNOWS what you're saying and thus can give you the bad news you need to hear, but were just too afraid to take. But when you're determined to make your book not just good, not just great, but award winning, it's all worth it!

Comment by Liz Gelb-O'Connor on February 15, 2014 at 6:38am

Take heart, if done right, you'll never miss those changes. I found as long as I focus on what's best for the story while staying true to my characters...it's okay if their story changes. I've rewritten over a solid 50% of my original book after I thought it was 'finished': pushing one of my favorite characters to a second book, adding new ones, add a new first and second chapter when I was almost finished, etc. Now, I'm ruthlessly going through the final draft of the second book in my series and doing the same: ripping and rebuilding where there is too much back story, removing unnecessary events and characters, and making sure each chapter moves the story forward without too much meandering. I look at this way: moving the book from a three -> four -> five star book.  If you even suspect an issue, readers and reviewers won't hesitate to point it out. GOOD LUCK! Writing is revising!

Comment by Brooke Warner on February 14, 2014 at 5:12pm

Such a great post, Kamy. Thanks for being so transparent about your process.

Comment by Susan Holck on February 14, 2014 at 11:53am

I thank you for this honest account of a brutal but necessary experience in writing a novel (or memoir, in my case, but similar problems...) I don't yet have what I consider to be a final draft, but I already know there are bits - or chapters in some cases, that I am very attached to but that don't "move the story forward" as Laurel so rightly writes. I like the idea of putting these into a "deleted chapters" folder, so they're still there, just not in the book. And you are so right about having to write the whole thing over again, not just cut out one bit or character. Reassuring that I'm not alone in this process. 

Comment by Laurel Davis Huber on February 14, 2014 at 9:14am

My novel, on the third go-round, has shrunk from over 400 pages to 270. Someone told me to always ask myself "Does it move the story forward?" When I actually did that, I deleted tons and tons of what I thought were great scenes, great writing etc. - but they did not move the story forward. Once you start the process it does become easier - i.e. you become ruthless. (And yes, I saved all my cuts in an "excerpts" file, just in case.)

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