Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The cutting room floor

"Kill your darlings" is classic writing advice. What do you do with the bodies afterwards?

by Dietrich

If they have to go, they have to go, so you could bury them, or you could keep them on ice. 

It can be hard to take out a part of the story, especially if I like it, but sometimes it just doesn’t fit for some reason, so it has got to go. I’ve kept files, paragraphs and chapters I’ve cut, character names and titles I’ve changed,  hoping to use one of these darling in the future, but I don’t think I ever have. Eventually, I’ve just let them go, and I’ve become content that new ideas are always on the way.
It’s not as hard to chop a limp character, a weak or forced passage, heavy backstory, a secondary plot line that isn’t pulling its weight, or a scene that isn’t going in the overall direction of the story. Elmore Leonard explained it perfectly by saying he just left out all the boring parts.

“I'm all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” — Truman Capote

As well as killing darlings, I try to be relentless about chopping repetition, trimming phrases and pulling unnecessary descriptors out by the roots. I’m all for vivid description, but that line can be crossed in a hurry. I generally like my prose to be lean so it maintains a good pace, meaning I have to be careful with the balance of details. Having said that, there are times when it’s good to slow the pace in spots, let it linger before it speeds up again.

“The road to hell is paved with adjectives.” — Stephen King

When I was researching for my historical novel, House of Blazes, there were so many darlings that I found in memoirs and archives, but I had to set so many of them aside, or it would have just bogged the overall pace of the story. The trick is to select the details that evoke the best mental images for the reader.

After writing for a while, I like to think I’ve come to know when something’s not working as well as it should. Call it instinct. And if I miss something while I ‘m writing that draft, hopefully I’ll catch it on the second or third pass. And if I can’t see the forest for the trees, I have sharp-eyed editors who will likely point out anything that isn’t working and needs to go. 

A beta or writing group can be a good test for some pre-published work, unless the writer is of the type who’d sit and wonder how so many intelligent readers couldn’t get something so blindingly brilliant. If more than one person gives me the same suggestion, then it’s absolutely worth another look.


Paul D. Marks said...

I think this is the key, Dieter, "The trick is to select the details that evoke the best mental images for the reader." Unfortunately, sometimes it's easier said than done.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

That's very true, Paul. I go by my instincts and hope I got it right.

Susan C Shea said...

I love the Stephen King quote, Dietrich! I have not read his novels (because I think they'll be searingly scary?) but I know so many writers who say they set a high standard. Maybe it's time...

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Yes, he's a great writer, Susan, and if it's time, maybe start with The Green Mile – less chance you'll need to sleep with the lights on.