The First Time I Killed My Little Darlings
Updated: Apr 18, 2022
It felt like chopping up my baby.
CC0 public domain image from Pixy.com
I met Miss Snark’s words with growing dismay. Was she out of her mind?
The anonymous New York literary agent’s blog offered near-sacred advice for aspiring novelists — i.e., struggling, largely crappy newbie writers.
(Well, those others anyway. Not me.)
I’d finished my novel, planned to check for typos, tighten up a few lines here and there, and schlep it off to New York, post haste.
But here was Miss Snark telling me my magnum opus, about a Pagan woman who’s gifted a medieval book of powerful spells she views as merely a historical artifact, wasn’t anywhere close to being ready.
For one thing, sez she, a debut novel mustn’t be more than 150,000 words, and better 125–130,000 words.
Was she out of her New York state of mind???
Was she serious?
Was 300,000 words honestly too long?
Who wrote that ridiculous rule? I’d bet it wasn’t Stephen King, Master of Doorstops!
(Never mind how Carrie was 60,000 words.)
Anyone ever heard of Margaret Mitchell? Gone With The Wind! 418,000! (FIRST AND ONLY!)
Okay, okay, that was like seventy years ago. But hey, look at this, Miss Snark! A DEBUT NOVEL about vampire librarians (yes, you read that right) just came out and it’s 240,000 words!
So yeah, you can have a debut novel thicker than a grilled cheese sandwich!
(It sucked. Torturous.)
Yah sure, mine’s still longer — I’ll bet I could whack it down to 240,000. And it definitely doesn’t suck!
Miss Snark begged to differ. She listed the literary sins of the wannabe novelist’s first effort: Too many characters; subplots that go nowhere; too many useless words; too much description (especially settings); too-long-too-graphic sex scenes; plots that sag in the middle or lack dramatic tension.
Her annoying list nagged me like a persistent pet demanding attention when I had more important things to do. I pushed it away but it kept throwing its paws in my lap.
Maybe 300,000 words was too long for a debut novel, today.
Other, better writers got away with these crimes in the past but maybe longer novels were best left to the pros. She was right. Stephen King I ain’t.
Then again, Stephen King wasn’t Stephen King, either. I felt IT could have been pared down by about a quarter to a third. Having read even heavier doorstops since then, I’m done with Stephen King until some brave editor goes Freddie Krueger on every work over 100,000 words and slashes them down to Abridged.
Better writers than the King and I had committed these many sins.
Too many characters: Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy.
Subplots going nowhere: J.R.R. Tolkien.
Plots without dramatic tension: Jules Verne
Not knowing when the story ends: Tolkien again, and King’s Rose Madder.
Too many useless words: Every Victorian writer. And Tolstoy.
Too much description, especially of settings: Tolkien again. Tolstoy — farming.
Too-long, too-graphic sex scenes: Every novel written since 1980, until, I guess, 2005.
Although I happily cut my 10-page orgasm down to his slipping his hand under her halter top and ending, “I arched my back, abandoning myself.”
Stories sagging in the middle: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. I’ve half-read it twice and he loses me after the aliens reveal themselves.
They’d all broken Miss Snark’s One Blog Tip To Rule Them All: Kill your darlings.
‘Murder your darlings’, the original phrase, is often attributed to William Faulkner but can be traced further to the English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Not only must you employ relentless zeal in removing all unnecessary words, but you must be ready to axe whole sections, scenes, or chapters if they drag the story down or otherwise don’t advance the plot.
First and foremost, Padawan: Get over the delusion every first-draft word you wrote is farking gold.
You ain’t Hemingway, and neither am I. Even Hemingway wasn’t
Hemingway on the first draft.
We beginners don’t know what we don’t know. We learn our style from the novelists we’ve read, not always the best examples for how to write today. (Especially the ‘great’s!) Not even from a few decades ago. Styles change. Often, for the better.
Once over the shock of Miss Snark’s bitter diktat, I locked my ego in the closet and drew out my Freddie Krueger gloves.
I pulled up my beautiful darling first draft and saved it as a second, in case I needed to restore anything (I never did). I locked my ego in the closet, whacking and slashing like the deranged leathery pedophile.
Creative Commons 3.0 image by Quintenense on Wikimedia Commons
That scene had to go. That one too. The confrontation with the ex-husband contributed nothing to the plot. Slashed! Bye, pointless subplot!. Sayonara, lengthy conversation! (Damn, did my characters love to talk!) I whacked a bad guy like Tony Soprano and offloaded his evil duties to his remaining Norwegian black metal band buddies. And why the hell did the main character escape her captors twice? Like, they caught her again? And her rescuers could even get near her after that little stunt? What was the point? I couldn’t remember. Cue the high-pitched shower violins.
It took around two hours. The first hour I got halfway through but the grief was too heavy. I forced myself to go back with my chop-chops a few days later.
I felt like I’d cut the limbs off my own baby. How could you? I could hear the first draft wail from the bowels of my hard drive.
I must have lost at least 100,000 words, I consoled myself. I just needed to tighten it up and get it down to under 200,000, my new goal.
Motherf — .
I bought a book called Self-Editing For Fiction Writers.
I took notes of all the sins I’d not yet identified. I hadn’t guessed how much of a doorstop I’d written, and with the advice alone on how to tighten up the language, I figured I could suck the excess verbiage out like a meth-crazed Dementor! Maybe down to the neighborhood of 150,000-ish words. If not, I could argue it’s still shorter than The Historian, the vampire librarian thing, and way less confusing.
I discovered an enthusiasm for methodical paring absent during the hack ’n’ slash.
I recognized draggy and redundant prose. Like, too much character eye-rolling when the love interest said something stupid or pretentious, which he did frequently. The scene where the main character gives a lecture on European witchcraft mania versus Paganism today? TMI. ‘Information dump’ as the self-editing book called it. (The Historian: Guilty as charged.)
It wasn’t the only place I’d taken an info-dump. I’d researched Native American culture and history, along with white ‘New Age’ pretenders for the love interest, an Irish-American author pretending to be a Native who appropriated and haphazardly mixed spiritual traditions. TMI about Native Americans had to go. Along with the one actual Native character who appeared in one pointless scene.
Writers conducting research for a character or plot sometimes can’t resist sharing all the fascinating factoids they learned, except it may not be as compelling for the reader. (I’m looking at you, Herman Melville!)
I got addicted to my ruthlessness. I jonesed to waste wasted words like a top video game player blasts alien orc-wizard Nazi thingies. I wanted every sentence as tight as your maiden aunt’s hospital corners, and I reviewed my notes to make sure I atoned for all my first-draft sins.
Third draft: 213,000 words!
DAMN!!! I was on a roll!
I began putting the novel aside for a month, then returning to it. Each draft got shorter and shorter. The final final final draft was 175,000 words.
I decided it was close enough to 150 thou, knowing some literary agents considered longer debut novels if they were really good, and I schlepped it off, fingers crossed. Four years in the making, over a year after I’d finished the first draft.
How could they not love it?
Hearts of stone, I tell you. Soulless bitches! (Most literary agents are women.)
A few things had changed since I’d typed ‘Chapter 1’ across Page 1.
The Great Financial Collapse ignited panic and chaos. Publishers circled the wagons and sought only Sure Things. Novels on established, popular themes enticed them. Vampires were huge. (“But — but!” I stammered. “I have something different! I have a wannabe vampire! One of those loser Anne Rice über-fans who thinks he’s a LeStat-style vampire!”)
Real vampires were better, along with phenomenally original ideas like taking a public domain novel or historical literary figure and giving them a fantasy twist. (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.)
Worse, my wannabe vampire didn’t sparkle.
Just a few years later, literary agents would have preferred a Red Room Of Pain rather than a white supremacist Odinist temple of black magic.
My novel featured near-torture involving someone’s dick with more metal in it than his music, but no one cared about that, either.
Anyway, long story self-edited, no one picked it up and I self-published.
I cut it down a bit more, but not much. I felt the story possessed all the necessary words. My beta readers got through it easily.
But attention spans had shortened some more, and now a ‘doorstop’ was 150,000 words, and the New Normal more of a novella, from 40–60,000 words.
In other words, about the length of a Harlequin romance.
Sorry, I don’t write for gnats. My novels are for people with attention spans, not those who download bite-sized chunks from Wattpad for a ten-minute bus trip.
Editing your first novel is always the hardest.
Before I published Tales From The Anonymous Divorced Witchbabe, I decided to do a test run. Tales wasn’t actually my first novel; I’d written years prior about four 1980s college students transported into an alternative medieval universe with strange modern trappings. I pulled it up for the first time in years.
I licked my lips and reached for my Freddie Kruegers.
Here’s the thing: Once you know what you didn’t know before, and your skills improve, not only is editing fun (I think), but it makes your future first drafts way less torturous. You’re less married to your characters or your plotlines and you don’t worry about klutzy phrasing, cliches, the wrong word, or boring characters. You barf it all out on your computer and resolve to fix it later.
And you do.
Kill your darlings!
It’s for the best.
Die, you overwrought chunk of purple prose! Die! Die!!! Image by 4657743 from Pixabay