Posted by Natalie J. Damschroder on Friday, July 13, 2012 Under: Guest Posts
Our guest today is Natalie J. Damschroder, a much published novelist of romance and paranormal fiction who's also an ace editor. Here she reveals nine practical ways to handle a problem we've all faced - how to cope with the writing we love. That gets in the way!.
Many years ago, frustrated by newbies who learned a “rule” about the craft of writing and proceeded to adopt it literally and religiously, some of us took to quoting Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean: “They’re more what you’d call guidelines, than actual rules.”
One example is “kill your darlings.” This is mostly attributed to William Faulkner, who was probably paraphrasing Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, with “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”
I’ve heard authors say they cut a whole scene just because they loved it. Others protest the idea that loving a scene automatically makes it bad. I think both sets miss the point.
Bad writing is easy to cut. “Darlings” are scenes or sections that are fantastically written, funny, evocative…but don’t belong. They don’t move the story forward, or they repeat stuff we already know, or they cause problems with pacing, conflict, or characterization. And they are hard to eliminate. The fantastic writing, wit, and emotion blind us to the truth.
So how do you identify a Darling?
1. Get someone else’s opinion.
This is one area where a good critique partner can be so essential. They don’t have the emotional attachment you do, so they can point out why a scene doesn’t work.
2. Listen to your gut.
Even while you’re laughing, crying, or patting yourself on the back, there’s probably something telling you, deep inside, that something’s wrong. If you’re stuck somewhere, it might be because a Darling set the story up in a way that isn’t going to work. Finding that place and killing that darling will probably unstick you.
3. Apply some tried and true analysis methods.
Some of these methods include going through your manuscript and highlighting elements. Sometimes it’s each POV character, sometimes narrative/action/dialogue, sometimes the elements of goal, motivation, and conflict. Some instructors say each scene must have two purposes (e.g. conflict, motivation, characterization, etc.).
One editor once told me to read through my manuscript and anywhere my mind wandered, flag it. Don’t stop, but later go back and analyze that passage to see what’s missing.
Okay, you’ve identified the Darlings. You’ve held a farewell ceremony to honor their contribution and their sacrifice. Now, how should you go about killing them?
1. First and foremost, don’t delete.
I keep a discards file for every manuscript. Ninety-five percent of the time, I never go back to a discarded scene or section. But there have been a few times I’ve wanted the dialogue or narrative to put somewhere else, or even a specific turn of phrase. Deleted scenes also make great promotional “extras” for blog tours and Facebook fodder. And finally, you never know when one of those snippets can be a launching point for a whole new idea. So instead of deleting, just cut, paste, and save.
2. Decide the level of change you need to make.
Some scenes just need trimming and tightening. Others might be too lean and need more detail layered in. Still others need to be eliminated completely and either rewritten or replaced with something else.
3. Use outside advice.
If you did have a critique partner, or are lucky enough to have an editor who pointed out changes to be made, consider their suggestions very carefully. Decide if their way is the best way to fix a problem, or if you can take a different approach that might be an even better solution.
If you’re looking at a full-book edit, or have multiple Darlings to deal with, tackle the easiest ones first. This almost never fails to prepare you to tackle the bigger ones. An exception might be if a huge change will cascade through the manuscript, rendering some of the smaller changes unnecessary.
5. Reference the craft gurus again.
If you know something is wrong but are unsure how to fix it, seek advice from the masters. Read craft books, take classes, or talk to some other authors who can help you brainstorm. I’m a pretty solitary writer—I don’t like to talk about my work that much, and I like to fix my own problems. But every single time I’ve described a puzzler to my writing friends, they’ve helped me find the solution.
6. Find a way to compromise.
Sometimes, a Darling is something you just can’t kill. With the first book in my first multi-book contract, the developmental editor had issues the acquiring editor had not initially seen. The changes they wanted me to make would have removed the aspect of the book that I loved the most, and forced me to cut some scenes that are my favorites.
It took a lot of discussion and negotiation and brainstorming, but I came up with a solution that fixed what they saw as the problem but kept the things I loved. And that’s the part of the story that generates all the biggest praise from reviewers.
For commercial writers, it’s not enough to love our own work. We need readers to love it, too. Hopefully, this has provided you with a roadmap for killing the right darlings in the right way. Good luck!
Natalie J. Damschroder grew up in Massachusetts, and loves the New England Patriots more than anything. (Except her family. And writing and reading. And popcorn.) When she's not writing romantic adventure for Carina Press and paranormal romance for Entangled Publishing, she does freelance editing and works part time as a chiropractic assistant. You can learn more about her and her books at www.nataliedamschroder.com.
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