Editing 101: When to Kill Your Darlings

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In my last post, I discussed in small detail the importance of editing your novel before submitting your work to publication. Because this is such a vital step in the pre-publishing process, and because my own work is in the editing process, I’ve decided to pursue the topic in more depth.

Let’s start with characters. After all, you can’t write a story without characters. There are numerous books on how to develop good strong characters, but what should you do when your characters just won’t work?

One of my college professors put it best when she told us novice writers, “Sometimes, you’ve just got to kill your darlings.”

murder

Sometimes, you’ve just got to kill your darlings.

No, these are not the words of an insane homicidal women, and no, she was not planning on going home to murder her husband and three children. To her, darlings refer to those lines, characters, scenes, and even motifs of which the author is particularly fond, but don’t actually work for the novel. I know it sounds a little dramatic to compare cutting a character from a writing to murder, but for those of us who are writers, that’s about the gravity of it.

I can attest to the trauma of having to write out several characters from my current project, some of which I loved dearly. The novel focuses on the relationship between two characters put together against their wills as a type of joke. By the middle of the novel, I need for them to reach their snapping point, but come together again at the end to reach a compromise in order to accomplish both of their goals. During their journey, I planned on having them pick up additional companions who I thought would support their story and help bring about further character development. I was wrong.

The companions proved to be more distracting than helpful, stealing the focus and thunder from the main characters. Desperate to make them fit, I made countless changes to the manuscript, some of which were detrimental to the plot. In the end, I created and cut out more than five characters.

One character did survive the purge, a former midget wrestler named Hervey. As a supporting character, he adds interest to the story without being distracting. His role in the story is clear and serves the purpose of the novel.

puzzle-pieces

Sometimes no matter how hard we try, we just can’t make our darlings fit.

So, how do you know when it’s right to kill your darlings? Simple answer: when you realize it just won’t work. It takes a critical mind to know when you’re holding onto something just because you like it. For me, when a character or scene becomes too hard to justify or when I’ve had to work way too hard to make something barley fit, then it’s time to cut it out. It’s like when you’re working on a puzzle and the pieces just won’t go together, but they look like they should, so you start pounding them together to make them lay flat. It might look like it goes there, but it doesn’t, and once all the pieces are set, the errors will show.

Outlining your novel in the pre-writing stage helps to prevent these issues, but even careful planning cannot prevent some darlings from sneaking in. That’s why the editing process is so important. Review your manuscript multiple times and with a critical eye. Be merciless in your hunt for darlings. Leave no survivors! And if the little buggers allude you, seek the help of others. Most publishers suggest having no less than three pairs of eyes on your work, including your own, so enlist beta readers, hire an editor, do whatever it takes to hunt down and destroy those darlings before they mar your manuscript!

I know it’s hard, but sometimes you’ve got to sacrifice a few darlings for the overall quality of your novel. You can always throw those characters a little funeral or hold onto them in a separate word document. Who knows, maybe they’d fit great in your next novel. Just don’t smash them down where they don’t fit, or you’ll end up with a manuscript that’s just as confusing as a bunch of puzzle pieces smashed together where they don’t fit.

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4 thoughts on “Editing 101: When to Kill Your Darlings

  1. I can absolutely relate to this. After ripping apart and revamping a novel I started ages ago, I had a hard time parting with some of the lines and scenes I had previously written. However, in the end, when I finally let go and started afresh, it blossomed into something even better than the original, so it was definitely worth it.

    Great advice!

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