Killing off the Darlings
A lesson I wish I had learned a couple decades ago came from author John Ringo at LibertyCon- sometimes you have to kill off that darling story or character. The idea puzzled me for 2 more years. Then I had a “Eureka!” moment, and finally I understand.
What John Ringo was speaking about in that instance (around a cigar and some barbecue ribs) was how you can write up a story, you can do all the necessary world-building, but that story just does not work, for whatever reason. So you shelve it. You want to tell that story, you desire to share it with others, but the story is incomplete and does not meet your personal standards. Shelve it and kill off that darling.
Another takeaway from Ringo in that session of chit-chat was how much do you cut away from a work in progress. If you have 187,000 words, but really only need 160,000, make some judicious cuts. Then re-read and see if you still maintain the flow and pacing of the story. Run it past your alpha readers repeatedly. This is what alpha readers are there to do. As Katt Williams declared in Pimp Chronicles, Part 1: “White people, get you some colored friends, because they will tell when stuff is not appropriate!” Same principle applies here. My alpha reader is my wife. She hates having to read. And if a story doesn’t make sense, she picks up on it in a hurry.
I didn’t fully understand all that Ringo told me, or how and why it works, till I hit my own roadblock with a scene- protagonist dealing with organized crime types in a restaurant where they (the Mob boys) are selling “fire insurance.” I liked the scene. Love it in fact. But it didn’t fit. So I removed it and pressed on. Afterwards, during editing, I realized what I had removed was an unnecessary conflict. Stories need conflict. It’s what drives the story forward. There are times and places for conflict though, and what I had added was entirely pointless to the overall story. The protagonist had already been established as a life-taking, heartbreaking bad ass. The scene as I had written it did not help. Cut it, shelve it, and move along. Nowhere in there did I say “throw it in the trash and forget about it” (stomps floor with right foot twice).
Now we fast forward to this week. I’ve got a story in the works. A long novel that’s going to take some time to establish the characters.. Rather than fantasy or science fiction, it’s a contemporary thriller. And I needed something special that marked my female protagonist as particularly ruthless. Oh hey, looky there at this scene I have that I wrote and cut out from elsewhere. Change names, cut to shape and graft it in. Not only does it fit, it accentuates her willingness to survive no matter what.
I’ve saved every notebook I ever filled with a scrap of a story. Lugged them around for years, much to my wife’s dislike. Maybe it was sentimentality. Some of them still smell the locker room when I carried them around in my wrestling gear bag. A couple have red dirt crushed into the pages courtesy of Helmand Province. There’s most of 20 years of memories and changes in my life written between the lines of those pages. But for the first time, I’m looking at them with new eyes- what can I pull from them to use? I have 3 dozen notebooks, approximately 5000 pages, to pore over.
Perhaps “killing our darlings” is too much the wrong verbiage. Let us say, instead, “putting them on ice.” That’s really all we’re doing- setting them aside till we can use them again later. In this age of incredible digital technology, why worry about where you’ll save those scenes, those stories, those parts and pieces? Anybody take a look at how much space is available to use on cloud servers? My goodness!
A little sorting and filing, insert tags for future referral, and you’ve got the perfect storage vessel! Just because I have 5000 pages to read through doesn’t mean that I have to do it more than once. I can scan those, I can make them permanent records on a hard drive and always have them handy. Think about what it means for your own work- is something troubling you? Pull it, store it separate, and keep moving forward.
Life is too short already, to spend time agonizing over a single scene and fretting away time that might be spent more profitably doing something fun, something which recharges the mental engine driving the stories we create. You may not be the next JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. But it doesn’t hurt to try. If I only ever made one-tenth the money that either of those brilliant women have, I would still consider myself a successful writer, so long as I knew people were buying my books because that’s what they loved to read.