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The Life-Changing Magic of Killing Your Darlings

Anyone who has watched me clean my apartment or pack for a move knows that I LOVE getting rid of things. When I found out there was a donation bin in the laundry room in my apartment building, I washed and tossed so much clothing. Why not? I wasn’t wearing those items of clothing. Sure, I had liked, maybe even loved, them at some point. After all I’d bought them, brought them home, and folded them into my drawers and hung them up in my closet. But at the current stage of my life, they just weren’t serving me anymore. Channeling Marie Kondo, I thanked them and got rid of them. That left me with a closet full of functional clothing with a select few wildcard items that I was super, super passionate about keeping.

So convenient when an anecdote from my life doubles as a metaphor for editing and revising a novel!

Editing a novel is a lot about pinpointing what’s distracting from or weighing down the plot. It’s about knowing which scenes are necessary and functional and which, though perhaps beautifully written or lushly descriptive, can be thanked and let go. We often call the process of culling such scenes “killing your darlings” because as a writer, you’ve put a lot of work into those scenes! Some of them might even be favorite scenes. And many of them are good pieces of writing. So it’s understandable that the idea of deleting them seems cruel.

But scenes need to be more than well-written. They need to have a purpose in your story as a whole. As Swoon editor Kat Brzozowski says, “Is it moving the plot forward?” That is the most crucial question to answer when deciding whether something has “earned” its place in your story.

Something else I will often ask myself as I’m editing is “Is there another scene that already accomplishes what this scene is trying to accomplish?” Some scenes may seem like they’re not directly propelling the plot, but they are in fact demonstrating something important about a character or relationship that turns out to be crucial it. However, if you have three scenes that are all telling the reader the same thing about the characters, dynamics, or other element of the story that you’ve already established, you’re better off keeping the strongest of those and cutting the other two.

Finally, killing your darlings doesn’t mean you have to write spartan prose or follow some rigid formula. Like my closet, novels are allowed to contain some louder, more colorful pieces that appear to break the mold. But choose wisely and remember that it is possible to weave kernels of old scenes—a detail or two that you are particularly passionate about keeping—into scenes that serve the story as a whole.

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Val O.

Ask me about Pennsylvania.

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