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.