Killing your darlings


Last week, I had a brief Twitter exchange on editing with a crime writer I know slightly after chatting to him over the course of the St Hilda’s Crime Weekend. He tweeted something to the effect that he was going through the very, very, very (probably) last read through of the book before giving it up to his editor. I replied, asking him if he’d got to the stage where his work of genius now seemed like the most boring book ever written. Oh, he replied, I got there several read-throughs ago.

That’s where I am now with In Two Minds. At the end of last week, I finished going through the typescript with a fine tooth comb, weighing up my editor’s suggestions and making a lot of changes of my own – mine to his run at about 3:1 as we agreed after finishing None So Blind’s edit that he really didn’t need to comment on everything as I’d inevitably come up with more changes myself.

Over the weekend I produced a clean copy – ie one without all the track changes boxes so I can’t see what I’ve changed – and now I’m reading through it again, quickly. This time, I’m looking for pace and structure. Are there chapters where the action goes soggy, are there any passages which need more explanation or pruning to make them tighter? Is there any element of the plot which doesn’t make sense because of earlier prunings that haven’t been thorough enough? Have I used phrases of John’s in Harry’s voice and vice versa?

Given that, when I’m writing, I always read through what I did the previous day before I start a new day’s work and that I frequently do a ‘where are we so far’ read through after any breaks of more than a week, it’s likely that by the time anybody but me sees the typescript, every word has been read through at least 5 times. So, after reading it again for the edit and now, again, almost immediately, there are no surprises for me in this book. And yes, it seems dull. Fortunately there are still sentences or short sequences which still make me smile or feel a bit proud, but generally there’s just a feeling of immense over-familiarity with it. and being over-familiar means you have to keep an extra-sharp eye out for stuff that needs to go or places where you may think you’ve made things clear but the reader won’t.

It’s a funny thing, writing. When people tell you that you ‘write well’ what most non-writers mean is that you write good prose. That your style is pleasing to them, that you use words well. But what publishers, editers and writers mean when they say that somebody writes well is far more multi-layered than that. Of course, we take as read that you can string a decent sentence together. I mean, otherwise, why would you even be bothering? So, after that, the layers are – have you used your facility with words effectively in the service of plot and character? Have you structured your narrative correctly in terms of pace? Do the events happen in a natural and pleasing way that doesn’t make your reader say ‘OK, what’s happening now and who’s this?’ Are you adept at creating characters that people believe in and who engage the reader and pull them into the narrative? (You can see more about that stuff in an earlier blog post here.)

Editing has to look at all those layers. And trying to balance them all to produce a readable book is difficult. There’s a phrase that all writers know – Ann Cleves, one of my favourite crime writers used it on Twitter last week when she was talking about editing her own work. You must kill your darlings. It means that you must be prepared to sacrifice some of your favourite bits of the book if they’re not pulling their weight. You might find you’ve written a character that doesn’t really belong, however wonderfully you think you’ve created them, or a passage of description which slows down the action, however poetically and wonderfully written. You might find that whole chapters, though beautifully realised, don’t actually move the plot forward or enable us to understand a character any better than a pithy observation inserted elsewhere might have done. So you highlight the offending passage and hit the delete key.

I’m halfway through the fast read-through now and, fortunately, I’ve not had to cut more than half a page anywhere. So far.

And on we go…

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