Saturday, June 25, 2011

Kill Your Darlings

Aloha, Audacious Alphabetorical Art-o-philes!    

When William Faulkner wrote “You must kill your darlings” he wasn't referring to what your neighbors are thinking when your pack of Pomeranians start the act of collective barkening at 2 am in the morning.  He was referring to the nigh-heartless attitude towards editing that all good writers must learn to embrace whilst writing in flagrente as well as post prose coitus.

After my patron saint for the arts moved on to another division in the company I soon lost my dedicated weekly writing day.  In spite of this jarring leg sweep I'd seen enough progress on the book during this time to ensure that this was only the briefest of setbacks.  My momentum now was juggernaut-esque and I dedicated every free moment to completing the first draft.

When this was accomplished I wasn't quite sure what to do with my Frankenstinian creation.  I read back through it once and made some superficial corrections and improvement.  I showed it to a couple of  people.  And then...nothing.

It went to fallow for a long time until I discovered the aforementioned Stephen King memoir On Writing.  After voraciously devouring that book, I discovered to my giddy thrill that I was already practicing quite a bit of what King suggested neophyte writers do.  I also uncovered some truly fantastic tips that made the process of Darling-euthanasia fairly painless.     

Here's a list of his biggest Do's and Don't and my own personal take on whether not I was already a practitioner, if I adopted his advice or chose to avoid the suggestion like the plague.  Ready?  Okay, here we go!
  1. Write What You Know and Tell The Truth  This is some solid advice right here.  I followed it in the sense that I was already quite familiar with Greek and Shakespearean tragedy as well as Medieval history.  Granted,  I didn't know a lot about the aristocracy of Italian city-states in the Middle Ages, but I researched what I needed and since my book is historic fantasy, I fudged the rest.  I was also pretty comfortable (as most of us would be) writing about familial dynamics.  King goes on to make an encouraging point: just because you've spent your entire life as a chartered accountant doesn't mean that you shouldn't write a sci-fi novel.  Just consider the possibility of writing about chartered accountancy...IN SPACE!!!  After all, most readers are looking for "echoes of their own lives and experiences" while reading a book.  I thinks this goes to great lengths to explain why I tend to fly though contemporary novels and often drag ass when reading the average fantasy book.  It's usually because so many works of fantasy don't really bother to include anything relevant to the life a modern-day person. 
  2. Adjectives and adverbs suck.  Amen, brotha!  Writing something like:  "Adele had petulant eyebrows" not only sounds gut-bustingly awful it's also shamelessly lazy.  If Adele is supposed to be petulant, show her being petulant in behavior not on her forehead.  
  3. Beware of Crappy Metaphors and Similes  I was initially quite guilty of this and I think a lot of budding writers suffer through an unfortunate bout of this as well.  In order to prove that they're "lee-jit-uh-mit" writers, a lot of folks will do the literary equivalent of jumping up and down, waving semaphore flags and screaming: "Hey!  Lookit me!  I'm a writer!  I've got style!  Look at how clever I am!"  Well, I hate to break it to you, Beulah May, but when you write stuff like "Bob fought like a jackal" (or worse: "Bob fought like a deranged jackal") you actually look like a schmuck.  Go sit down...James Joyce hates you now.          
  4. Speed Doesn't Kill, Bad Dialogue Does  This could be the hardest thing for inexperienced writers to do properly and it's often virtually impossible to improve.  It's also, as it should be, a literary deal-breaker. Your either gonna be able to write good dialogue right now or you can't.  The main reason for crappy dialogue is often the writer's own social inexperience and ineptitude.  If you haven't been around a lot of different people in your lifetime and were weaned on network television, your characters are likely gonna sound like a bunch of maladjusted shut-ins.  Or, even worse, they'll all sound the same.  King makes the observation that even a descriptive genius like H.P.Lovecraft was wretched with dialogue.  As soon as he stopped cataloging the thirty-third tentacle on the unspeakable horror approaching the narrator and that character had to actually verbalize something, fuggedaboutit.  Speech by rural characters or characters of race were particularly wince-inducing.  Frankly, Lovecraft makes George Lucas look like Aaron Sorkin.  Now, although I grew up a somewhat shy and sheltered kid, my self-induced tenure in university residence and then immersion in two massive call centers soon allowed me to develop a good ear for realistic, naturally-flowing dialogue.  Even when I decided to make my characters sound contemporary to appeal to modern-day readers, I still had to ensure that they  actually sounded like real human beings communicating naturally with one another.  In fact, if I'd stuck with a "Middle English" mode of speech it would have been easier to pull of since most people wouldn't have had a clue what they were saying to one another.  But that kinda defeats the purpose, doesn't it?  One bit of good news: if you follow King's advice to "write a lot and read a lot", eventually your dialogue-writing capabilities should improve. 
  5. Be Conscious of Showy Literary Gimmicks  This sort of dovetails with Point # 3, but in a way it's worse because it usually eats up a ton of unnecessary space.  Once again, you usually see this coming from a rookie novelist who's trying too hard to impress people by trotting out the literary lug nuts in his or her stylistic toolbox.  Even the Mighty King has been guilty of this one as anyone who's ever read Carrie can testify.  King's first published novel is chock-a-block with showy newspaper clippings and diary entries.  Frankly, the time spent on such gimmicky things would have been w-a-a-a-a-a-y better spent on developing the main character in the book's "here and now".  Mercifully I'd manged to steer completely clear of anything like this in my own book.  The closest I came was in Chapter Forty when I had the Rogues speak only in dialogue to one another to see if readers could discern who was saying what to whom.  It was a simple, Hemmingway-like experiment to see if I'd done my job as a writer to make each character's voice sound unique and identifiable.  Best part about it: it actually decreased the book's page count, not increased it.
  6. Symbolism ISN'T One of Those Gimmicks  In fact, it's an awesome tool to help re-enforce your theme, increase repeat reader appeal and give your audience some unconscious tasty bits for their brains to gnaw on.  In my book I took my dedication to symbolism  The number three features prominently in the book and it ties into the Triple Sword sigil and the 'Strength, Wisdom, Courage' mantra that no less then three major powers are all vying for.  I could go on but I've already said too much...
  7. Two Drafts and a Polish Should Do...Not!  I actually went a wee bit further.  Actually, I went a lot further.  I read through it, made any glaringly obvious corrections, followed the procedure laid out in Step # 12, made corrections and revisions based on their feedback, and then did something totally nuts.  I re-read every passage of the book, out loud, four times in quick succession.  The neighbors probably thought I'd gone loopy, but by the time I was done, any wonky descriptions, tinny bits of dialogue and gratuitous adverbage had been exorcised.  Basically, I wanted to eliminate any passages that might cause me to trip up if I ever had the privilege of reading the book in public.  Remember: Your Darlings.   Kill 'em with impunity.  
  8. Finish First Draft Before Waving It Around  In retrospect, the dude at the Nova Scotia Writer's Federation actually gave me some solid advice here.  Make sure the first draft of your book is completed to your personal satisfaction before letting anyone else paw all over it.  This will ensure that, at the very least, it's free from undue influence and the oft-corrupting powers of committee decision.  No matter what you say about it initially at least it's still the product of one clarion voice. 
  9. Give It A Six-Week Burial  After that first draft is done, put it away for at least six weeks.  Go work on something else.  Clear your head.  Forget about THE BEAST in the desk drawer.  King maintains that time and distance will allow you to tackle the book with fresh eyes and make the Darling-related executions far less painful.  Lord know I followed this advice but I think I did six years instead of six weeks. Yeah, don't do that, BTW.
  10. Editorial Book-Keeping  When you sit down to do your first edit, make sure you're equipped with a pen and separate pad of paper.  Record page number, line reference and the desired or suggested correction.  Personally, I didn't do this for my own first edit, I just made changes right in the manuscript. Having said that, one of my trusted volunteer readers/guinea pigs adopted this fastidious strategy all by herself and, bless her heart, it turned out to be ludicrously helpful.
  11. "Plot Hole!  'Roit Ahead!"  Be on the lookout for plot holes so gapingly big you can drive a Mack Truck through 'em.  Someone once said that "if there's a gun that's described over the mantelpiece in Chapter One is has to be fired by the end of the book".  'Nuff said.
  12. "*PSSST!*  Wanna See My Captain's Log?  Show your beloved tome to two or three trusted friends. These people should represent your ideal reader but also stand in as fair and constructive critics.  Hell, I even subjected my three test subjects to a friggin' survey!  King suggests that this process be fairly democratic and I mostly concur with him.  Now, I don't believe that your readers should dictate major elements of your story, but if you hear the same concerns over and over again you seriously need to look at changes.  For example: if one reader loved the way a character was miraculously redeemed at the end of the book and another hated it, consider it a draw.  However, if everyone surveyed thought that it was completely improbable, you may want to do a few revisions.  One major caveat: if in doubt, make sure that your novel doesn't become the equivalent of a "choose-your-own-adventure" book.  Too many good movies are homogenized and subsequently ruined this way.  If you decide to alter your original ending just make it's not because someone said: "Well I just wanted it to be happier" or "I wanted the hero to end up with the girl".  Frankly, most people are unhealthily enamored with convention.  If they want something that white-bread, encourage them to watch reruns of  7'th Heaven.
  13. "Get Along, Little Plotty, Get along!"  Have your test readers really pay attention to the book's pacing.  Again, this is very important if your book is loosely plotted since the danger of meandering is considerably higher.  As I've previously detailed, before sitting down to write I'd always jot down a one-sentence description of what I wanted to see happen in the next chapter in order to drive the story onward.  I think this tactic kept me pretty well on course based on the feedback I've received thus far.
  14. Second Draft Is The First Draft Minus 10%  Again, this is more appropriate for authors who write without plotting.  This is not to say that I didn't mercilessly cut, hack, chop, jettison, raze and demolish Kaiju-style anything that failed to serve the plot.  Remember, don't be afraid to push your Darlings down the steps and then kick them in the sternum a few times to make sure you've properly killed them.
  15. Flashbacks are Boring  King follows this up with the following truism: what will happen is always more important then what has happened.  If you don't believe me, just have a look at those crappy Star Wars prequels.  As King puts it ever so delicately: everyone has a history, unfortunately, most of it isn't very interesting.  In my book, there were a few times in which I had to resort to a super-brief flashback for the sake of story economy but it didn't happen very often.  I'm a big proponent of the old writing adage:  show, don't tell.        
I'm tellin' ya, fellow fledgling writers...this is some Grade-A solid advice right here.  Seek out On Writing.  Read it.  Embrace it.  Become one with it.         

You'll thanks me later.

EPIC  The invaluable tome in question:
King's On Writing (On Writing by Stephen King (Mass Market Paperback - July 1, 2002))
HILARIOUSLY EPIC:  Comedian Patton Oswalt illustrates what will happen is always more important then what has happened in the only way he can.  WARNING: not suitable to work.  Like, at all.      

FAIL  Bad dialogue is everywhere.  Do your best not to contribute to it's proliferation!,,20174698_20399906,00.html

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