Behind “The Process”: Just Kill Em Already (Editing)

Don’t freak out–it’s just a euphemism. I’m referring to the quote all English majors are familiar with:

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

– William Faulkner

There are plenty of writers’ resource websites out there that break this down. What makes mine different? Um…the other websites aren’t this one?

I dunno. Aaaaaanyway…

He meant that we all love our writing and consider it dear to us. But a good writer knows when to trim the fat. For example, if you’ve been following my Behind “The Process” series, you know I’m trying to get a literary agent. So far, well, I don’t have one.

As best I can tell, this next quote came from Albert Einstein:

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

– I already said Einstein

Since I’m not insane (I hope), I’m changing my pitch every time I query. I’m through a few rounds of agent querying. The responses have gotten more hopeful, but still, ultimately, have all been no’s.

So What’s the Snag?

Or, in other words, what, besides the pitch itself, is the problem? I’m happy you asked. You’re such a good listener. The problem, as I see it, must be the story itself. I think I’m getting stronger at writing queries, as evidenced by more regular replies. One prominent agent even said, “This isn’t right for me at this time, but query me with again when you have something else.” So that’s a positive step. But the problem must be in the first 10% of the book, because…

Most agents only ask for the first 5-30 pages of the manuscript!!!

I know my story kicks ass. But the opening doesn’t reach out and slap you in the face the way, say, a Grisham story does. The last book of his I read (Camino Island) has a somewhat sleepy introduction to the main characters. But before that happens, he spends the first few pages going through an exciting heist that sets the rest of the story in motion. Had he just started with the adjunct college professor whose career wasn’t going as planned, I might not have read it. OK, I would’ve because I know he’s a great writer who would eventually deliver. But he knows, just as do many of the most successful writers, that you have to hook em early.

With that in mind, I went back to just the first 20 pages of my book. My goal for word count was 75,000. I ended up right around 85,000. So with a 10,000-word surplus, I went in ready to kill as many of my darlings as it took.

That paragraph that describes a part of town that isn’t in the rest of the story? Gone. Peace out, homie.

The description of the bullies that corner the good guys right before the shit really hits the fan? Way too wordy. I was able to condense two paragraphs into just 3 sentences.

The description of life in the town before the time travelers invade? It was almost 4 pages long.


I shortened it to 1 or 2 paragraphs.

Those flashbacks to better times? Got rid of most of them. They didn’t fuel the story, so I got rid of anything that just didn’t matter.

How Do You Know What to Cut And What to Keep?

There’s a thing you learn about in creative writing classes. Chekov’s Gun. The overall idea is that if you have a gun hanging on the wall in Act 1, it better go off at some point. Otherwise, why is it there?

If you apply that, sometimes brutally, to your editing process, you’ll catch things like, “Why did I describe the gas station across the street from where things are actually happening?” Or, “Why am I describing this character’s parents if they never show up in the story? Isn’t it enough just to say, ‘His parent’s wouldn’t have approved of such language,’ without launching into an entire backstory on them?”

And the biggest thing you can do to cut out the junk: filler words. “Just” appeared in my manuscript so many times I didn’t bother to count. I used CTRL+F, typed “just”, and hit enter. It highlighted every “just” in the book. I went through and cut probably 98% of them.

So that’s why there’s a strikethrough line in all the justs… (Wink)

So remember:

Write without fear; edit without mercy.”

– Unknown

I hope this helps.


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Christopher Tallon writes, podcasts, and…wait a second. Are you actually reading this? High five!

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