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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One Ideal Reader

So. We’re back to the first draft. After several months of ponderings and musings and “woe-is-me”-ings, we’re back.

I’ve been editing fairly consistently for the past week or so, working from my new writing set-up (iPad + folio keyboard = mobile writer go!). I haven’t made it past the first chapter yet — but that’s mostly because the first chapter needs a lot of work. Ultimately, it needs to do some serious heavy lifting. Introducing characters, establishing a mood, setting the scene. And it’s that LAST part — the scene — that’s been a sticking point.

Re-reading my first draft, a big thing that stuck out at me was the science. Or rather, the “science” — vague, elusive and inaccurate even to my untrained eye. I started out this book with a very specific setting in mind: a futuristic desert landscape that shapes the characters and their actions. I didn’t worry (or even think about) the science behind such a setting when I wrote the first draft. The story was tied up with the setting — I couldn’t untangle the two. So I just wrote it as I felt it needed to be told.

Kids, learn from your elders — this may have been a mistake. I wrote myself into a scientific quandary: a setting that is not actually possible here on earth. Which would be fine if the book were set somewhere else! But it’s not. It’s here, it’s earth, it is what it is. And I wanted to fix this — I wanted to make it “right.” After reviewing the first draft, I was determined to make the science believable, albeit possibly a bit of a stretch.

My friend Tara offered to help. A former college roommate, Tara has been a plant nerd for as long as I’ve known her (plant nerds are the best kind of people), and now she’s turning that plant nerdery into a career as a scientist. She and her husband offered to take a look at the premise behind the book, chat about the science, and get back to me.

And chat they did — along with several of their scientist friends. General consensus? Nope. Does not compute. Science presented not possible. In any way, shape or form.

Cue the tiny violin.

Now, if that sounds defeatist — well, I was feeling a bit defeatist. But Tara and Nick were not, bless their science-y hearts. They offered up a bunch of other possible scenarios, ways the setting could be changed, ways that I could correct the science. And I listened, I took notes, I pondered… and I questioned. “Well, what if this had happened? This? Ok, not that one, how about this?” I sought the one answer that would get it “right,” when I was missing the one big, important, obvious thing: I was unwilling to alter the setting.

It sounds so childish typing that out. “I DON’T CARE IF IT’S WRONG, IT’S HOW I WANT IT.” But that’s how I felt. Changing the setting just felt wrong — a different setting wasn’t part of the story I wanted to tell — but I so desperately wanted the science to be right. I worried about getting it wrong, I worried about readers saying, “No, this isn’t possible. This could never happen.” I didn’t want readers to call me out on it.

Feeling stuck and confused, I emailed Tara more follow-up questions… and she responded with something that gave me pause:

I feel like you can say anything you want to set up a situation that works for your book. As a reader, I feel like I generally accept whatever premise the author presents. I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal right now and there’s all kinds of ridiculous things that exist and are happening. I’m more interested in relationships than in the setting that exists behind them. — Tara, lovely scientist and friend

Hello, light bulb. It feels silly to admit it… but I had never thought of it from that angle before. Stephen King talks about figuring out who your Ideal Reader is, and writing for that person. I had been fixated on ALL THE READERS — all the people who would say I was doing it wrong. But as King writes:

You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time. — Stephen King, On Writing

Maybe the science didn’t HAVE to be 100% right. Maybe I could ask the reader to take a leap of faith with me. Yes, there will be readers who are distracted and annoyed by the lack of scientific accuracy, but… maybe at the end of the day I’m not writing for those readers (or CAN’T write for them). I have to decide what type of story I want to tell and run with it, committed and ready to roll.

So no — this book is not going to be scientifically accurate. Edits and revisions will hopefully get it closer to plausibility, but I’m not going to worry too much about getting it all “right.” The setting will work to further the overarching themes of the book — themes of survival and community and responsibility to one’s self versus the greater good. THAT’s what I want to talk about with this book. That’s what I want to focus on. So to the scientists of the world, I apologize — this book may not be for you. But I’m hoping for that one Ideal Reader, it will be.

Getting Back to Business

Well.

January sure flew by fast.

When I finished my first draft in December, February seemed a loooong way away. Taking off January from all things writing seemed like a huge luxury. I would do ALL THE THINGS. Watch ALL THE TV. My brain would relax and veg out and come February be totally blank — a clean slate, ready to work.

Didn’t quite happen that way. Don’t get me wrong — January has been an awesome month. I read good books! I worked on some new projects! I traveled to Sweden and Denmark!

But at the back of my brain it lurked. The ever-present story. Characters and plot and questions. It never truly left. It’s taken up residency and ignores the eviction notices.

Byron is currently reading the first draft — the first person to read it in its full, complete form. I am dying to ask him questions, ask him where he is, what’s happening what does he think — but I resist, because that’s not really fair to him as a reader. On the flip side, he doesn’t get to ask me questions at this point — he just reads it as it is. Any inconsistencies or errors or gaping holes can be pointed out after “The end” is reached. (Although he did tell me I somehow mixed up the first chapter of another book in there. Oops.)

So here we are, with February just around the corner. I said that come February 1 the revisions would begin, and I’m sticking to that. I realized the other day, though, that I don’t really know what I’ll be doing come February 1. I mean, editing, yes. But I’ve never undertaken an editing project this large before. The last book I wrote, I edited under the time crunch of NaNoWriMo — 30 days of intense editing — and while I do think the second draft is better than the first, it wasn’t enough. That editing job was haphazard and hacked together and clearly the work of someone without a plan. Hindsight makes clear that I had no idea what I was doing.

This time, I want a plan. I want strategic editing — I want revisions that enhance the story, make it tighter and leaner and strongerSo I’m doing my homework. This past week I’ve been reading up on editing from the pros — professional authors, published authors, the ones who’ve done this in the past and (in theory) know what they’re doing. I’m gathering up the best of the best, and on Thursday I’ll share my finds with you — with the hopes that I’ll get some clarity out of it, too.

Part of me doesn’t feel ready — part of me says I should take more time off, that my brain needs to decompress more. But another large part of me calls bullshit. It’s time to get back to business.