The Fiction Editing Files #2 – How to best kill your darlings

Categories Editing tips

First drafts are a bit like sandcastles on the beach: creative, lots of fun to build – but fragile. When the tides come in, they get washed away.
Well, the good news is – not all of your writing will get washed away by editing. Plot elements, characters, phrases will hang around. The more you rebuild, the more will cling on, a bit like friendly barnacles. However, in a way, the editing process never ends. Not even when it is finished. Hey, even a hugely successful author like J.K Rowling keeps introducing new facets to her characters and admits openly she regrets killing some of her reader’s darlings.
While authors like Rowling can bring their darlings back to life through prequels and films, can openly discuss their choices and even apologise for shooting down some characters or for pairing others, most of us will not enjoy that privilege. At some point, we need to lift the axe. Not only on characters, but also on pieces of texts, elements of the plot that felt just right during the first draft but suddenly no longer fit.

Tip #1
– If you have to cut something you’re proud of, keep a copy. I have a “dead dodo” file, where I keep my darlings that did not make the cut. I also butcher those firsts novels that won’t ever see the light of publishing. There ARE good things in there. Things that might work in a different context. Phrases, descriptions, walk-ons that are too good not to be used. Store them, and you will be surprised how much you can re-use.
Having said that, how does one know that something doesn’t fit? Sadly, the list of potential candidates to walk the plank is rather long.

Tip #2
– To cut or not to cut – There’s a hitlist for editorial killers.
First of all – lose the waffle. And no, I don’t mean the things you can buy at fun fairs. Wordiness, echoes, repetitions – of words, actions, even characters – need to be cut. Every word counts. Your readers don’t pay for fluff. They don’t pay for clunky or loose sentences à la
“She considered starting to think, tackle the issue, but realised that perhaps she ought to maybe go the other way and just let her mind drift. Float in the blue. Not use her brain for a while.”
Those are a lot of words to say somebody doesn’t want to face reality. Plus, I would give the “issue” a name and describe it.

Tip #3
: Cut scenes without purpose. Every scene serves a function (action, transition, character or information) and every single one of them must drive the plot. If they don’t, they have to go. For example, scene 1 in chapter one might introduce the characters while the second scene gives (some!!!) backstory. Scene 3 then has the characters transition to another location where they, in scene 4, get whacked by the inciting incident.

OFFER – I’ll help you. The first person to contact me will receive a review of the first ten pages with summary feedback.

4 thoughts on “The Fiction Editing Files #2 – How to best kill your darlings

  1. Thank you for the article with practical tips! I’d very much appreciate you reading my first chapters of a novel I’m working on!

    1. Hi there,
      thanks for your interest! As promised, I can have a look at your first ten pages. I think a link to a google doc would work best, alternatively a pdf if you prefer? If you subscribe to the blog (you can alway unsubscribe afterwards!) I should get your email address and we can correspond directly.
      Best, Lina

  2. Nice article!

    I always keep copies of old drafts, and I also have parallel files with “deleted scenes”, including “outtakes” — even for non-fiction.

    A little nit-pick: as you even avoid stepping on lilies, you certainly don’t want anything to walk the plan*t*, do you? 😉

    1. Hi there,
      Thank you for your feedback. Otherwise, oops, I read this three times and still managed to get it wrong. Thanks for letting me know, will fix pronto!
      There’ll be more on the editing subject next week.
      Take care!

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