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Five Ways to Murder Your Loved Ones

If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve probably heard the expression, “Kill your darlings.” (The real expression is “Murder your darlings” and comes from Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch’s “On The Art of Writing”: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”)

One of the most difficult processes of revision is cutting (but not necessarily deleting) chapters or excerpts that you’re invested in. Those chapters may hold some personal meaning, or you may simply have spent a shitload of time writing them. Let’s say you spent a week researching every detail from which trees are indigenous to the region in which the antagonist took his vacation to the front page headlines of the Kansas City Star on November 17, 1949. Let’s say you spent a week writing it, another week polishing it, and yet another week revising it after having had it critiqued by your best friend, your Aunt Gracie, and your award-winning writers’ group. And let’s say, worst of all, that it’s really good. Tough luck. Chop it. Because if it doesn’t move the story along, doesn’t deepen the reader’s understanding of the character, or just doesn’t fit where you stuck it between Chapters 21 and 23 as a flashback that takes place within a dream sequence, it’s gotta go. But how can you make that excision while losing the least amount of blood?

1. Fist of all, when you’re writing chapters, don’t spend too much time on the details until you’re done with the entire manuscript. I know the temptation to spend hours doing research because research means you get to use the Internet (and we all want excused to use the Internet) and research means you get to put off doing any real writing. But it’s better to write “TK” (short for “tokum” an intentional misspelling of “to come”) and to come back to it later. I can’t tell you how many chapters I’ve spent weeks writing and revising to perfection only to remove them completely from my manuscript. Now when I sit down to write, I resist the urge to over-research before it’s time.

2. Second, don’t delete the chapters you remove from your manuscript. Just move them to a separate folder titled “Extra Chapters” or “Extra Scenes.” You’ll find a use for them someday, either as scenes in you next novel, as standalone pieces to be published in magazines or journals, or as fodder for other stories, chapters, and blog posts.

3. Don’t take it personally. Your writing is not you. If someone suggests you remove a section, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a good writer. In fact, it doesn’t mean that that passage is not well written. It just means that the book will work better without it. Which brings me to number four.

4. Tell that chapter to take one for the team. A book is like a team and and each individual chapter, or passage, needs to act in the best interest of that team. If that means benching it, then so be it. Give that chapter a glass of lemonade and some sunscreen. Let it watch the game. But keep it off the field until the game is won.

5. And finally, don’t get too attached to your writing. Remember the story of Rodin, who chopped off the hands of Honore de Balzac. Quoted from Laos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing:

Rodin, the great French sculptor, had just finished the statue of Honore de Balzac. The figure wore a long robe with long loose sleeves. The hands were folded in front.
Rodin stepped back, exhausted but triumphant, and eyed his work with satisfaction. It was a masterpiece!
Like any artist, he needed someone to share his happiness. Although it was four o’clock in the morning, he hastened to wake up one of his students.
The master rushed ahead with mounting excitement and watched the young man’s reaction.
The student’s eyes slowly focused upon the hands.
“Wonderful!” he cried. “What hands… Master, I’ve never seen such marvelous hands before!”
Rodin’s face darkened. A moment later Rodin swept out of his studio again. A short while later he returned with another student in tow.
The reaction was almost the same. As Rodin watched eagerly, the pupil’s gaze fastened on the hands of the statue and stayed there.
“Master,” the student said reverently,”only a God could have created such hands. They are alive!”
Apparently Rodin had expected something else, for once more he was off, now in a frenzy. When he returned he was dragging another bewildered student with him.
“Those hands… those hands…” the new arrival exclaimed, in the same reverent tone as the others,”if you had never done anything else, Master, those hands would make you immortal!”
Something must have snapped in Rodin, for with a dismayed cry he ran to a corner of the studio and grabbed a fearful looking axe. He advanced toward the statue with the apparent intention of smashing it to bits.
Horror stricken, his students threw themselves upon him, but in his madness he shook them off with superhuman strength. He rushed to the statue and with one well aimed blow, chopped off the magnificent hands.
Then he turned to his stupefied pupils, his eyes blazing.
“Fools!” he cried. “I was forced to destroy these hands because they had a life of their own. They didn’t belong to the rest of the composition. Remember this, and remember it well: no part is more important than the whole!”
And that’s why the statue of Balzac stands in Paris, without hands. The long loose sleeves of the robe appear to cover the hands, but in reality Rodin chopped them off because they seemed to be more important than the whole figure.
Neither the premise nor any other part of a play has a separate life of its own. All must blend into a harmonious whole.

What about you? How do you balance your scenes with your plot? Do you outline your plot first and then write your scenes to conform to that? Or do you write the scenes, try to cram them into a plot (the way I do), and then end up with a whole lot of deleted scenes?

8 comments to Five Ways to Murder Your Loved Ones

  • A) Love the "benching" analogy, hehehe.

    B) Love the Balzac anecdote. I think I've heard it before, but I had forgotten.

  • Kristan – I guess the Balzac anecdote was more a continuation of number four, but I couldn't think of a fifth point 🙂

  • Jim

    This is old advice, maybe ancient, and is probably good for newer or non-professional writers. (I always feel like a professional writer is one who doesn't mind when their work is edited, btw, as opposed to those who feel every word was spun out of some effervescent golden diamonds and should never be touched, let alone tweaked; that's usually the amateurs' view.)

    But this advice always reminds me of the scene in East of Eden about Steinbeck's mom taking her first airplane ride. In Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters he freely admits that this is totally superfluous to the story and has no real reason for being in it — except that he wants it in there. And I, for one, am really glad it's there.

    The Balzac story, at least to me as a fiction writer, has the feeling of total fiction. And I don't believe it for a moment. Someone obviously got asked why the statue had no hands and in response spun a good yarn. (Now if they'd only told someone else why the Venus de Milo had no arms.)

  • Hey Jim,

    Thanks for your comment. Whether fact or fiction, the Balzac story is a good one! I don't remember the airplane ride story in East of Eden. Maybe it's time I reread that book.

    I agree that professional writers are used to having their work edited/hacked, but there are a LOT of not-quite-beginning writers out there who are still very sensitive about their work and who have a difficult time having it critiqued. And many of them read writing blogs 🙂

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