Darlings are Damn Hard to Kill

Image courtesy of Henry Söderlund via Flickr
Image courtesy of Henry Söderlund via Flickr

As a writer, I know how important it is to let go of those pretty words that no longer serve my story. They may have helped me get through the muddy middle of my first draft or even find a way to begin, but when it’s time to revise, the death blows need to fall. Sometimes excising these beautiful ones can be harder than you think.

I’ve heard the phrase “Kill your darlings” more than once when at conferences and workshops. One editor even said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If you must keep them, print them out and tuck them safely under your pillow, but get them out of your manuscript.” (I really wish I could remember who said that, because I think that’s just brilliant.)

Point made. They don’t belong in your story.

Usually I don’t have a problem with the slash and burn. The delete button and I are well acquainted. However, during my latest revision I came across a major blind spot that caused quite an upheaval in my first chapter. While I thought I had done my usual slashing without mercy, leaving a wake of dead darlings bathed in red ink, once I presented the freshly cleaned chapter to my critique group, I received a surprise. The comments?

“This doesn’t work.”

“This flashback scene is confusing.”

Why was there a flashback scene in the first chapter, you may ask?

Ugh.

I know, I know. Total amateur move. Bad writer.

So what happened?

I changed my opening line. And then…I couldn’t let go of the old one. In fact, I worked so hard to keep it, this little darling of mine, that there was no rule I wouldn’t break. I went so far out of my way to write badly, knowing I was writing badly and still unable to stop, just to force the line in and to make it fit. The gymnastic maneuverings it took to twist the story broke the laws of physics and the rules of writing. Even as I was writing the horrible flashback scene, which was the only way I could work it into the story, I knew it was crap, but I still couldn’t quit.

Why?

Maybe because I thought it was humorous, a running gag I could use through the whole story. Maybe I thought I couldn’t write something better. I don’t know, exactly. Deep down I did know that this bit of writing I was trying so desperately to save didn’t move the story along and it didn’t really add to the main character – something that should have brought on an immediate death sentence.

In the end, I needed my CPs to help me euthanize this one. They took one look at the mess and said unanimously:

“This doesn’t work.”

Have I mentioned only a few dozen times how much I love my critique group? They are always so good for me. I can hide nothing from them. Once they pointed it out, I just had to laugh at the ridiculousness. Of course it didn’t work. I could see it, then.

But it was hard to say good bye. Maybe because I didn’t always think it was so bad. That darling helped me out of a bind, once upon a time, when I was struggling for a beginning hook. It may not have been the best opening, but it did help me stop worrying about the perfect beginning and move on to write the story while I had that placeholder. I knew the time would come when I’d have to change it. But when the time came, I thought I still needed it.

Now I know I can let it go. I can write something better. I am finally ready to kill this darling.

Pushing Past Our Comfort Zone – Continuing to Learn When We Think We Know it All

“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”

– Socrates

I’m at that stage in my writing where I no longer feel like a complete novice. I’ve made many of the classic beginning mistakes – I fell in love with my own words whether or not what I was saying moved the story forward, I sprinkled my sentences liberally with adjectives and adverbs, and the narrative voice? We were best friends.

I’ve since moved on to the more advanced mistakes.

Like becoming a bit complacent with my craft.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot that although I may now be able to whip out some excellent dialogue and show the action of a scene and insert some awesome sensory details and have great pacing and an authentic teen voice that I still have things to learn; that this is an ongoing, evolving journey that I may never truly master.

My friend and fellow critique partner Helen Newton came along just in time to remind me. She gave an excellent presentation at our Tulsa SCBWI schmooze earlier this month where she discussed novel revision techniques. One of her suggestions dealt with reading your manuscript out loud – in different ways, like in a monotone or with an accent. The purpose of this exercise was to make mistakes in your writing easier to see when you hear your words read aloud  – especially by someone else or in a different rhythm. When we become too familiar with our own work, we can miss glaring mistakes that others might see without a problem.

This reminded me of a recent story I heard on NPR about radiologists who were given films of lungs and asked to look for cancerous nodules as part of an experiment. Almost all failed

Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe
Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe

to notice the picture of the gorilla superimposed on the slides  because of their narrowed scope. They were looking for disease, not gorillas. This phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness”.

“In other words, what we’re thinking about — what we’re focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see.”

So did I have “inattentional blindness” in my writing? I’d heard this practice of reading one’s work aloud was a good idea before, but never before in such detail. I’d also never had the patience to try it. It was one thing to read a picture book manuscript out loud, but an entire novel? And more than once? Forget it.

But the very next week, I was preparing my submission for our upcoming OK SCBWI conference in April, and I was working on completely new manuscript. I needed some input before submitting it. There was no time to get feedback from the great and mighty dream team, my critique group, so what was I to do? I recruited some beloved family members and gave the read-aloud idea a try. I’m useless when I read my own work aloud because I stop and edit too much, hence negating the whole purpose of the exercise.

I have to admit having two different people read aloud through my pages was really helpful. They both also made helpful editorial comments when they were finished – which showed me that they’d finally learned to spare my feelings and comment from the heart. All of which kept me from sending something out that was less than stellar.

Now if I could just talk them into reading my completed YA manuscript – it’s only 350 pages. I sense a hefty bribe is in order there.

So what about you? Do you read your manuscripts out loud? Do you use a program to read it out loud for you? Do you cajole adoring family members into reading it for you? What other revising exercises do you find helpful for seeing the hidden mistakes?

#writemotivation Check In

Image

Here are my goals for March:

  • Complete my novel revision
  • Post two blog entries each week
  • Update my journal project and keep it current

One week in on this challenge and I’m fairly wobbly on the balancing act of actual writing versus platform growth and maintenance. I keep picturing Janelle Monae performing Tightrope in my head. I did manage to post at least two blog entries and to work through fifty pages of revision on my latest project, Institutionalized: I’m not Crazy. It’s a young adult (YA) novel about a young girl who is put away in a psych hospital as an out of control alcoholic runaway after she witnesses something she shouldn’t. She struggles with the abrupt changes in her reality brought about by what she witnessed, and how to convince someone – anyone – that she’s not crazy.

Now I only have 240+ pages to go. I just have to make sure I’m revising at least eighty pages a week for the rest of the month. Next month, it’s submission time. *gulp*

I didn’t even touch my journal project. I have been thinking about doing some kind of project/book dealing with autism for a long time, but I haven’t been ready – it’s just too close to the surface, the emotions, for me to write anything good. People are always curious about what life is like with a child autism and it’s difficult to explain in general terms, sometimes. One friend recently asked me if he would ever drive a car. I had to explain that even if he could ever get over his coordination issues, he could never get past his attention issues. Children with autism have difficulty filtering out stimuli and so can easily get overstimulated. Not good for rush hour traffic. Even if an airplane flew overhead – CRASH! So I came up with the idea of journaling my life with my son Trevor for one year. Maybe that could help me show what life with autism is really like and vent all of those emotions at the same time. Trevor turns eighteen next January. All kinds of things will start to change with this birthday. It’s a good year to try it.

Even when I don’t make daily entries, I make brief notes on my calendar and I’m just really behind on putting them down in the actual journal format. That’s the goal for this week for the journal- to get those entries caught up.

How are you doing with your writing goals? I’ll leave you with this motivational song to help you keep the balance going as you try to reach your writing goals as well: