My critique partners will be the first to tell you that at times I can be…long-winded. I am a person that overwrites my books, and I write really fast, which makes this bad habit even easier. 4,000 words in a writing session is about standard for me, and if I write every day, I can do about 30,000 words a week.
This means I tend to end up with a lot of scenes and subplots and side characters that don’t need to be there even after I ruthlessly shave off my word count. But the problem is that I love those leftovers.
You know what these are. You’ve had them. You probably still have some in what you’re working on.
It’s that side character that has no point but you just adore. It’s that scene that doesn’t add to character or plot but it’s just so clever.
They’re your darlings.
Look, I get it. This is hard. Especially if it’s something you’re proud of. It’s embarrassing if you can’t see past the shiny appeal of a page and can sting when someone calls you on it.
(Note: This is why critique partners are so important. They won’t hold your writing precious. If a whole chapter is pointless and needs to go, a good critique partner will tell you to axe that sucker. *cough* Breeyou’reamazing *cough*)
But how do you kill them? Even if every person that reads your story/book/etc is telling you that something needs to go, you might dig your heels in.
“But it’s so pretty!” you cry. “I worked hard on it! I love it!”
If there’s anything writing and editing short fiction has taught me, it’s to hold nothing precious. That doesn’t make cutting things any less painful. But I learned how to trick myself into cutting my darlings.
Step 1: Do not delete anything forever. If you haven’t already, open a document and name it “[project title] leftovers” and keep it open. My rule of thumb is that anything longer than three sentences gets dumped here. This is where every cut scene, every useless side character will go. It helps if the removal of that darling feels less permanent, and you might end up going back to steal tiny pieces of dialogue or description down the road.
Step 2: Cut out the darling. Yes, all of it. Move it to the “leftovers” document. See! It’s not gone, it’s still there! It’s just…not in your book. Save the orphan doc and close it.
Step 3: Walk away. I mean it. Get up. Do something that relieves stress that ISN’T writing. Go for a walk, go to the gym, paint a picture, pet some cats, eat an entire bag of popcorn while reading about mortality rates of different influenza strains (maybe that last one is only stress relieving for me…?). You need time away from the darling so you can come back to your writing with a fresh head….fresh eyes? Fresh both?
Step 4: I’m sorry, did you think you could go back to writing that part? NO. *swats* If you must write, work on a different section. But don’t touch the darling. Don’t even think about it. The goal is let yourself forget about it so some of your feelings can fade.
Step 5: After some time has passed, take a deep breath. Go back to wherever your darling used to be, scroll up several pages, and read. Don’t edit. Just read. Read all the way past that darling you murdered and keep going. YES, KEEP GOING. NO LINGERING.
Step 6: Ask yourself the scary questions: Does the story still flow? Are there only tiny things you need to work out and polish? Is the core of the story and the emotional arc of your protagonist still intact…or even stronger? Can that darling you slaughtered be summarized in only a sentence or two? If the answer is yes (and it probably is) you already know what to do. Leave. The Darling. Dead.
If you’re still uncertain, talk to your writing partners. But they’re probably going to tell you the same thing.
Sidebar: If that “darling” is the fact that you want to leave a character alive when their death better suits the narrative, definitely talk to your writing partners. If they’re bloodthirsty, heartless monsters like mine are, they’ll probably cackle as they tell you to murder the character.
Look, I get it. This is painful. My latest project is in the hands of some writing partners I really, really trust and I already know they’re going to come back to me with scenes that need to be cut, characters that need to be removed, and subplots that need to be axed. RIP.
And that’s a good thing. You’re not handing people your manuscript to critique partners so they can tell you everything its beautiful and made of roses (and if you are, you’re not ready to have critique partners).
You’re handing it to them so they can help you make it better.
And sometimes, that starts with murdering your darlings.
Enjoy your torment!