Editing: Killing Your Darlings

I must warn you that the following piece contains a lot of analogies and despite the theme, may ironically violate some of the ideas discussed.

For the most part, I have wrapped up working on my novel, The St George’s Angling Club.  At this point I am doing minor tweaks, giving it a little time to sit without thinking about it, will reread it all the way through, make final tweaks and then will self publish shortly after.  It feels good.  Anyway, a while ago, I wrote that finishing the first draft was like seeing a kid turn ten.  Now with the benefit of more hindsight (and drafts 2, 3, 3.1, …4.3, etc in the rearview), I’d stick to that analogy but throw in the caveat that very quickly that kid turns eighteen, starts talking back, may dip into your liquor cabinet and comes home at all hours.  In other words, you’re ready for him to get out of the house.

But the editing process has been amazing, one of the best experiences of my life.  First, I must admit that I was painfully ignorant of how long it would take me.  I thought the writing would be the hard part, then I’d edit quickly and I’d be done by the beginning of summer.  Not so.  As I got deeper and deeper into editing, I realized how distant the end of the tunnel really was.  The best analogy to explain is: trying to hold up a tarp full of water.  You run over here… “That side is spilling; make sure that character (introduced on p38, then showing up 11 more times) is consistent!”  You run over there… “The other side is spilling; make sure that arc (spanning seventy pages) makes sense and grows into the next!”  It’s a game of trying to see trees and forest, and a map of the whole region at the same time.  But after a while, and this is the cathartic part, you get a rhythm of knowing when it’s okay to snip off a piece of the tarp.  I ran over there… “And you know, this part of the tarp isn’t that useful—Cut!”  And as you keep moving, you feel your greater arcs.  And your characters and the soul of the story resonate more deeply, and the cuts and snips come easier and everything tightens like bridge cables.  “Brevity is the soul of wit,” so said Bill Shakespeare.  Keep it tight.  (Listen to Bill, JRR Tolkien.)

So the work was pared down and down.  “Trimming the fat” as they say.  I’ve gone from 137K words (~380 pages) to about 102K (~300) and I do not believe that I’ve lost anything in the characters, the plot or the descriptions.  Provide less and trust the reader more.  In another sense, think of one of those big, 3-D maps of places like the Himalayas or a battlefield in the Civil War that you find in museums and historical societies.  That is what lives in the writer’s mind: a highly detailed look and feel and layout of a story, people and places.  The craft of writing is throwing a bed sheet (your page) over that and then pressing down the folds of that sheet into ever nook and corner, over every tree and around every mountain.  Words are blunt tools when compared to the imagination.  There is a reason one picture equals a thousand of them.  The reader will never see exactly what the writer sees.  The page will always exist in between.  So all the writer can do is create the most detailed blank canvas for them to work on, if that makes any sense.  Stephen King said, (paraphrasing) “imagination begins in the mind of the writer and ends in the mind of the reader.”

The last piece I’ll comment on is the idea of trust.  Trust in writing is game of balancing your own self-confidence and skills of communication, with your reader.  Take an obvious example of lack of trust:

A: Got a joke for you.

B: Okay.

A: What’s black and white and red all over?

B: Don’t know.

A: A newspaper!

B: Ah, good one.

A: Get it, because red actually meant read, not the color, and a newspaper is black and white.

B: Yeah, a-hole, I get it.

“I get it, a-hole” is the kiss of death.  You are wasting a reader’s time and that means you’ve just been tuned out.  I’ve never finished a Tom Friedman book because I always find myself saying, “Got it, Tommy.  Technology and globalization will save the world,” 2/3rds of the way through.  So that’s the other hard-to-attain goal: never saying anything too much, while avoiding the just-as-harmful converse of, “Wait, what?  Where did this come from?”  The folds of that sheet over the 3-D map have to be juuust right. You can’t trim too much of that tarp.

So that’s how I’ve seen the editing process so far.  There is of course the same inherent problem of one reviewing their own work.  They always say that doctors are their own worse patients.  All I can attest in that department is that I’ve done my best to rid my critique of pride of ownership.  It’s about the story and nothing else.  King also said, in his very creepy way, “Kill your darlings” in reference to being confident in removing what you’re proud of if it really doesn’t add to the characters or plot lines.  As readers, we can very quickly recognize when a writer has gone off on a (self-indulgent) tangent, and like the “I get it, a-hole” issue, this is an attention killer and takes us out of the pages.  It’s about the story and nothing else.


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Follow Caleb at www.twitter.com/calebgarling

Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at




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