Murder your darlings? Maybe…

Picture of hand with knifeLast night for some reason known only to my brain I woke up thinking about self-editing and how one goes about this rather onerous chore. Some parts are relatively simple and here I mean looking for over-use of adjectives and adverbs, typos, lousy sentence construction and the like. The hard part is deciding what is part of your story and what is not.

We’re often told that if it doesn’t advance the story, cut it out. Which is fine and makes sense. Of course it does. But what does that really mean? I started to consider my Iron Admiral books. I’ve written a post before about how I nearly killed the story through over-editing (click here to read it). After that, I split the very long novel into two shorter ones and set about reconstructing. In that process I had to decide what was in and what was not, given I’d thrown out whole chapters as well as smaller scenes. And I have found that some of the scenes I judged initially to be extraneous to requirements and added back with some misgivings, were stand-outs in revealing character and adding depth to the story.

The best example was that Admiral Saahren sent Allysha, the love of his life, flowers. He sent them anonymously, but he sent her love lilies, flowers which in the Confederacy Fleet had a particular significance. Originally, I’d asked myself that question – if I leave this bit out, will the story still stand? Will anybody notice? Let’s face it, the answer was ‘yes’. By rights, the flowers didn’t add to the plot and certainly the historical background to the origin of the love lilies story was extraneous. Yet more than one person loved this side of Saahren’s character. You could say the same thing about his visit to a market with Allysha, where she admires a bolt of cloth. Or for the flashback where Saahren relives his sister’s death. Or for the discussion between Allysha and a senior officer on Saahren’s flagship, who reveals information about the Fleet’s officer corps.

So take care when you ‘murder your darlings’. Sometimes it has to be done, but there is more to a novel than a plot. Characters must be believable, the setting in which they operate must be three-dimensional. These days, if I read some of my own work and find myself wondering why this chapter is there, I’ll consider a cut but I think carefully about eliminating a scene which adds depth or character. I always find myself coming back to The Lord of the Rings and Frodo’s sojourn with Tom Bombadil. Sure, the story stood without it but I loved that section, regardless.

What about you? Have you had second thoughts about eliminating scenes? Or some advice on what to cut?

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About Greta van der Rol

I'm an author of fast-paced, action-adventure novels, mainly space opera - although I've been known to write in other genres. I live not far from the coast in Queensland, Australia and enjoy photography and cooking when I'm not bent over the computer. I have a degree in history and a background in building information systems, both of which go a long way toward helping me in my writing endeavours.

Posted on 17 May 2012, in On writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I’d never dream of trying to give advice on what to cut, Greta. Like you, I find it hard enough deciding on my own stuff, and I at least know something about that. I agree completely about being careful n ot to lose things that add substance to characters rather than further the plot. My guess would be that most readers carry on turning the pages because they find the characters interesting, sympathetic, real rather then just because they want to know what happens next. If you don’t care about a character, it doesn’t matter what happens to him/her.
    But I also think that nearly all writing is improved for being trimmed. The editor of my first ever published book said I needed to lose about 70 pages. I did, and she was right – the book was much better for it.

  2. No dispute from me, Bill. I have eliminated whole scenes because they were a distraction to the story and editing always, always, always helps. But sometimes I think we are not the best judges of what works and what doesn’t.. Which comes down, yet again, to trusted beta readers.

  3. The flowers, the walk through the market, and all those “little” scenes might not seem to advance the book. If you were writing a straight action story, I could agree. And a straight romance might not need details about the workings of a stellar drive. But you were writing action PLUS relationship so you needed that depth of character to flesh out the story.
    It’s what set Iron Admiral up a rung on the ladder.
    Now, that first forty pages of my first book, which dealt with getting to a ranch in New Mexico, kicking out the former stable manager, inspecting the hay, looking up the name of the supplier yadda yadda yadda–compressed very nicely into “You said what to Kyle Jordan?”
    Not that anyone’s seen that book yet, but at least it’s no longer an insomnia cure

  4. For now, that one’s in the Romantic Suspense trunk, to be dragged out later when I’m ready to be yet another writing persona

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