Kill Your Darlings

Earlier this year, I finalized a short story that I really adored. Quite often the process of drafting a story can be painful, but this one was a joy from beginning to end. I hand-wrote the first draft, and it had a lyrical quality to it. I loved the main character. I felt passionate about the themes explored. The story had a deliberately slow pace, an unfolding and unveiling. It was a quiet story with a good emotional payoff.

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Unfortunately, this all meant it was looooong. Which, in itself—not a problem! If the reader is willing to go with you on that journey, awesome. But from a practical standpoint, a long word count can be a challenge. Most literary magazines have a word-count range they’ll accept. For a lot of them, the max is 6,000. Your options for submission dwindle as the word count rises.

But there are options, and I loved this story, so off it went on its submission rounds.

And then, a few weeks ago, I ran out of places that would accept that many words. I had to make a choice: retire the story, or hack off over 2,000 words.

2,000 may not sound like a lot. But that’s anywhere from a third to one half of most short stories. The task seemed impossible—or if not impossible, unpalatable. Taking away that much would ruin the deliberate pace I had set. It would alter the methodical voice. It wouldn’t be the same story.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a short story she wrote that was accepted by a major magazine. It was a story she loved, one she’d polished and tightened to perfection, and she was ecstatic it was going to be published. Then, prior to publication, she got a phone call. There wasn’t as much space in the magazine as originally planned. She had two options: drop the story from that month’s issue and hope it got picked up for a future one, or edit it down.

Gilbert chose to edit. She wasn’t sure how she was going to do it, but she started hacking away until it was done. And to her surprise, the story was ultimately better for it—and yes, it was published.

So I printed up my story and grabbed my red pen and I started editing. It took about a week (and a final edit from Byron) but I was able to cut out close to 3,000 words.

And it is a different story. It has a totally different pace. It leaves you with a different feeling. I had to kill so many darlings, sentences and entire sections that I loved and desperately wanted to keep. But the heart of it is still there, still beating.

While it’s true that stories are art, that writers have a vision and they should stay true to it, there’s never anything so precious that it can’t be revised. My story now starts its second round of submissions—a different story, yes, but one I’m still proud of. It wouldn’t have had that chance if I decided it was perfect as it was.

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