Writing Lesson: Killing Your Darlings
An art teacher once gave one of her pupils a consistently brilliant score. One day she left and her star pupil got a new teacher. His scores plummeted. The upset parent sought out the first teacher and asked; ‘Why did my son get better scores under you?’ She replied; ‘I knew when to take his work away from him.’
This is one of the biggest writers’ problems. How do you weed out the weaker material, and when do you learn to leave things alone? Without fail, the books I write which sell least well (or bomb outright) are ones with hard-to-define subject matter and ones which have been through a great many rewrites. ‘Calabash’, ‘Soho Black’ and ‘Plastic’ were all tough sells. Conversely, ‘The Burning Man’ went through my desk like hot butter and is on target to become the most successful Bryant & May novel yet (for the first time, the paperback version will be published in the same year as the hardback, on November 5th, together with its successor, ‘Bryant & May: London’s Glory’).
Why did it prove so much easier to write? It’s more complex than many in the series, and packed with characters. The short answer is that I changed the way I work.
One of the things I initiated was a change in the development process that resulted in a smoother, more focused end-product. It involved increasing the amount of up-front decision-making about the book’s content, doing more preparation, working in a less scattergun fashion and more structurally, and adding a final further draft to the process.
Adopting these practices, though initially involving more work than usual, actually sped everything up by changing the balance between research/prep and physical production, so that I’m not trying to make decisions halfway through the third draft that I should have made at the beginning – often really fundamental things like ‘What is John’s profession?’ and ‘How does Sarah feel about her daughter?’
I’m a natural flibbity-gibbet and have very little patience, so the other important factor has been concentrating on the theme (this was actually my agent’s idea) and cutting away anything that diverted too far from it. In ‘The Burning Man’ I had originally introduced a new character late in the book, and my agent felt that this was the wrong thing to do, so I cut out the whole strand and narrowed the focus at this late point instead of whimsically expanding it. In terms of reader satisfaction, the impact was enormous.
It means that you have to, in Dorothy Parker’s words, ‘kill your darlings’ and remove some of the parts you like best. She didn’t follow her own advice, of course (Parker became dismissive of her considerable talents. What she had spotted wrong in the writing of others, she had trouble curing in herself) because it’s hard to abandon passages you’re proud of – but by doing it you radically improve the story you want to tell.
It’s difficult keeping a distanced overview of your own work – you have to become both the creator and the reader – but it makes you a harsher critic, and you soon start to find the same faults that a reader would spot. And that can only improve everyone’s experience.