Kill Your Darlings?

by , under Publishing, technique

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Whew. I knew there was a reason you hire people to do this. It’s almost impossible to edit your own work.  There’s too much “love” involved.  “Kill your darlings”  is the tired old advice.

The earliest known example comes from  Arthur Quiller-Couch, who spread it in his widely reprinted 1913-1914 Cambridge lectures “On the Art of Writing.” In his 1914 lecture “On Style,” he said, while railing against “extraneous Ornament”:

If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

 That said, if one murders all his (or her) darlings, there is a genuine danger of taking out the style. A good editor has the ability to see what is part of said style and what is not. A superb editor can make the prose sing. Raymond Carver had a superb editor. So did Hemingway. So does Annie Proulx.

But what of now, with self-publishing? Any good editor is bound to be expensive, and there’s the chance that they might not be able to see the forest for the trees. They might kill darling for the sake of killing them.  Or worse, they might eliminate the style and create a safe, generic version that totally misses the point. I had a recent experience where a  guy wanted to post one of my poems to his site. I was complimented, but the self-styled grammar expert edited the poem of mine for what he called “smoothness.” Never mind that the poem was about chaos and used line breaks and profanity to help create the impression–he returned back to a perfectly-spaced, blanched version of what I had written. I told him no. I write smooth poetry sometimes. Pick one of those. He recanted and posted the poem as is.

God forbid he edit my novel, I thought.

So what to do? I am lucky to have an astoundingly smart girlfriend who is also a hell of a writer. She suggested that I read aloud from a hard copy and make the corrections right there on paper. She even agreed to listen.  And so I read my own work aloud, pencil in hand, and the result was remarkable. I do a lot of reading to my daughter (we went through all the Narnia and Harry Potter books and now are onto Little Big Man) so I am experienced with the nuances. I also am a huge fan of audiobooks and know several of the great readers very well (Patrick Tull, Frank Mueller, Tom Stechshulte are among my favorites). What I found by doing this was I gained a little distance from the work and was able to really suss out how it sounded, especially the dialog. I also found some continuity problems, potential character inconsistencies, rhyming echoes and suchlike.

So if you, like I, can’t afford an editor (and are too proud to beg, aka kickstarter), give this a try and see if it works for you.

Don't just stand there.