Murdering 22,000 Darlings

VERY eye-catching post at Writer Unboxed, highly relevant to this post about bad writing advice.

On Murdering 22,000 Darlings.

One learns a lot about one’s writing habits—and oneself—when cutting almost 19 percent of a manuscript, paring it from 119,000 words (476 pages) to 97,000 words (409 pages).

Oh! That’s not at all the same. That’s just cutting WORDS. Words are not “darlings.” No author falls in love with one word at a time, in isolation. Sentences, maybe. Paragraphs, maybe. But I personally think “darlings” mostly means scenes and perhaps characters.

I mean, if you particularly love a specific sentence, quite likely you can find a way to keep that sentence. Those of you who have read two different versions of one of my books will have seen me shift scenes around, hand a snippet of dialogue to one character and then another, and tuck a particular sentence or three from one chapter or scene that disappears into a different chapter or scene that remains. I don’t save every snippet I love, but I certainly do save a good many. I would bet that the author of this post — David Corbett — did too.

Cutting 19% of a manuscript is a lot, I grant. I feel like I’ve done that. Let me see. Why, yes, that is just about exactly the amount I cut from Tuyo. I’ve cut more than that from time to time, I bet. I think The White Road of the Moon was probably the one from which I cut the most. Come to think of it, I cut The City in the Lake pretty hard. I think. I’m pretty sure I remember cutting that by about 15%.

Anyway:

Overwriting is hardly an uncommon problem. When writing our initial drafts, we’re discovering the story for ourselves, fleshing out the logical contingencies that make the story plausible, describing places and people in great detail to make sure we’re not overlooking something. Often, in the days after writing a scene, we’ll realize we’ve missed something—a nuance, a subtlety, a contradiction—and will go back and fill it in.

When returning to the text for a rewrite, however, much of that exploration proves to be excessive, and determining how little is necessary to convey what we intend—succinctly, powerfully, dramatically—is one of the key focus points of competent revision.

A good point here. Not sure I buy the idea that it’s crucial to leave only as little as absolutely necessary, but it’s fine to frame revision that way. A bigger issue for me personally is either (a) forgetting I explained something, so I explain it again; and (b) not being sure I conveyed something successfully, so I convey it again. Also (c) really wanting to slip in a little more development of the culture or world or whatever, even though it’s not absolutely necessary to the story as such. But as I say, I don’t know that I consider (c) a real problem to worry about and correct, unlike (a) and (b). Spotting and removing repetitive backstory and explanations is certainly something I do in revision. Along with adjusting foreshadowing. It’s a trick, foreshadowing just enough but (hopefully) not too much.

Corbet winds up this way:

The point is reader engagement, and excess writing not only tests readers’ patience by forcing them to wallow through needless verbiage, it also all too often overexplains, making too explicit what they want to infer for themselves. It’s important to realize that often it’s by not saying something that we allow subtext to make the point for us, and the inference of meaning from subtext is one of the great joys of reading.

I think that’s well put.

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