Murdering my darlings

I’m now in the home stretch of my revision process.  In writing this book, I’ve been much more mindful of its potential marketability, much more so than I was with my first novel writing experience.  In revising it, I’ve really tried to turn that concern up a notch.  Now, I don’t want this to sound like I’m not being true to my story and my characters.  Like I’ve said before, I wouldn’t write unless I could fully believe in what I was writing.  My concern is this—how do I tell the story I want to tell, but craft it into a form which will be accessible and challenging in a pleasing way to readers. Readers are so various in their tastes that this is a nearly impossible thing accomplish.  So, I decided on a few rules for myself.  Here they are:

Plot is important . . .  Significant questions about characters and events need to be presented right up front, starting with the first sentence.

Mingle character action and reflection effectively, never allowing either to take over for too long . . .This can be quite a challenge, particularly when you feel the momentum of your story moving forward, leaving character development behind, or conversely, you get bogged down in a character’s thoughts and nothing is happening in the story.

Avoid unnecessary dialogue . . . Choose the best, most significant moments to create into scenes.  In my opinion, strong, clear narrative voice is why people read instead of watching TV or film.  If everything is in dialogue, then where’s the room for an engaging narrative voice?  You might as well watch a good movie.revising

Choose your moments for beautiful language . . . I’ve heard it a thousand times: “murder your little darlings.”  And I think it’s difficult piece of advice to follow, but I think it’s right.  I’m an English teacher, so I love beautiful language.  I love the sounds of words and rhythm of well constructed sentences.  I also like big ideas, philosophical ideas, which is where I often get into trouble.

As I’ve been revising, I’ve had to learn to strike dead some of my darlings.  For instance, I just edited this out of my novel— This strong desire for moral order, after all these years, still remains acute in my consciousness, but my understanding of it has complicated.  Like most passion, it has been mitigated, rather than ignited, by the truth. I love this line.  It says so much about my character, Martha, but it simply didn’t fit in the scene where I had placed it.  It had to go.

Anyway, a contemporary fiction writer has to learn to sacrifice beautiful lines for the unity of plot and character, and for the sake of his or her readers.  More often than not (and understandably so) readers want the story to move and the characters to do interesting things . . . they don’t want philosophical exposition. Sigh. Still, if I find the right moment before I’m finished with my novel, I would love to find place for the Martha line.  Maybe, it will find a home in a different part of the novel, or maybe, it will die along with some of my other darlings.  I’ll just have to wait and see . . .

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2 Comments

Filed under Revising and Writing Process

2 responses to “Murdering my darlings

  1. Bernadette

    These are all really astute points, John. Especially hard is that balance between beautiful language and plot – I always love books that manage to have both page-turning plot and beautiful sentences 🙂

    • johncopenhaver

      Yeah, I love it when a book has both . . . which reminds me, I need to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo . . .

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