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Editing Your Own Work: How to Dismember Your Darlings

Sir Arthur Quiller CouchSir Arthur Quiller Couch, the patron saint of modern grammar nazis and bedroom blog critiques, famously said: “writing is murdering your darlings”. While this quote might suggest that it probably is a good idea to keep most writers locked in their studies for days on end without any human contact, or a change of underwear, it’s not actually because they have homicidal tendencies.

I’ll quite happily admit it’s not a good idea to marry a writer, not because you’ll fear for your life every time they dig a big hole in the back garden (it probably is just for that triffid they’ve always wanted to grow). It’s simply because they’re not legendary for the size of their pay packets. I’ll also agree that you shouldn’t leave them in charge of a room full of school children, but only because of their irregular underwear habits, not because you’ll have another Columbine on your hands.

What the Edwardian uber-critic Sir Arthur was actually getting at was the ruthlessness with which all writers should approach their work, especially when it comes to editing. I’m quite aware of what a painful chore editing can be. So much thought, so much effort and so many beautiful words went into your story and now you have to throw some of them away forever. It’s like clearing out your bookshelves and deciding which of your six copies of Farenheit 451 you’re going to get rid of. The old battered edition was the copy you read in school, whereas this one has a really cool Kelly Freas cover  oh, and you bought this one cos the gorgeous book seller recommended it and that eventually got you laid. I mean how often does a book purchase get you LAID, you can’t part with this one…

In all seriousness though, you really only need one copy. Just as you really only need one adverb in a sentence like: “Slowly, tenderly, assiduously I reached into the cot and picked up the newborn.” In fact personally, I agree with Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway and many other writers, that you should probably avoid adverbs altogether whenever you can.

The ancient Egyptians used to believe when you died, that before you were allowed to enter the afterlife you’d have to face the god Horus who would tear out your heart and weigh it against a single feather. If your heart was not pure it would be heavier than the feather and you’d be thrown to a monster called Ammit who was like an escapee from Dr Moreau’s island  with the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion and the back legs of a Hippopotamus. It’s my belief that writers are a special case though. When we enter the afterlife we have to face Thoth, the god of magic and writing. He doesn’t weigh our hearts next to a feather, he weighs every single adverb we’ve ever published. If the scales overbalance then we’re thrown to a creature made up of the backsides of every critic who’s ever lived, most probably with Sir Arthur Quiller Couch’s arsehole at its head screaming: “time to murder your darlingsssssss!”

So you see why editing is such a serious and important business.

On Writing by Stephen KingIt’s not only a matter of knowing what to cut from your first draft it’s also a matter of knowing how much. In his excellent book On Writing (required reading for any writer) Stephen King (yes him again) speaks of a note he got from a now forgotten editor, back in 1966, that gave him the magic formula: “2nd draft = 1st draft minus 10%. Good luck.” While this is quite a prescriptive formula it isn’t a bad rule of thumb.

It would seem then, that editing isn’t so much murdering your darlings as dismembering them. Try to imagine the target market for your story as the coffin you’ve brought to the remote rural shack to bury the body of the darling you’ve just murdered. As is always the case in these matters (and please don’t ask me why I’m so knowledgable) the coffin is ironically 10% too small for your deceased darling. So you have to decide whether to saw off the head or the feet first, and then pick the arm that has to go.

Without wanting to sound too bloodthirsty, hacking up your darlings may be a gruesome business, but the longer I’ve written, the more it’s become the part of the process that I enjoy the most. Maybe it’s the mad professor in me, but I see editing as the act of perfecting my work. Like Dr Frankenstein I see myself stitching together the body parts of my murdered darlings to create the ‘perfect adonis’ of a story.

Before I became a full time writer I was a stand up comic, travelling up and down the country performing gigs night after night to pay the rent. Like most stand ups, once the gig was done I would replay the performance over and over again in my mind, dissecting it to find which bits worked and which didn’t. There would always be parts of my performance I wished I’d done differently. A pause I should have extended to get twice the laugh, a new quip I ought to have dropped into a routine to make it funnier. The only problem was, that gig was over and done with. It was a moment in time to which I could never return and no matter how much better I thought it could have been, the gig would never be more than what it was in that moment. I could not go back and extend that pause, or drop that quip into the routine.

With writing however, that is exactly what I can do. Once the first draft is written I can revisit it as many times as I like (within the given deadline), until it’s as close to perfect as I can get it. If a certain passage needs an extended pause I put one in, if it needs a new quip I drop it in at exactly the right place and no one will ever know I had to go back to do it over and over until it was right. As far as they’re concerned it was this good from the word go.

Editing isn’t just a matter of shedding unnecessary words and sentences. It’s also about shedding unnecessary concepts and plot strands if need be. This is part of writing that demands the most ruthlessness from the writer. Sometimes the concepts or plot lines that need to be cut are utterly priceless. They may be the single most ingenious and original thing in your story, but if they don’t serve the overall needs of the story itself  if they’re a square concept in a round plot hole  they just have to go.

This doesn’t need to be murder though. The pulp sci-fi doyen Robert Heinlein always insisted that nothing you write is ever wasted. It will always find a home some place, even if it’s not the first story into which you put your concept. If the idea is good, it will eventually find a home, and that home will most likely be the place it was always supposed to be. In this instance, writing isn’t so much murdering your darlings as cryogenically freezing them until medical science, or your imagination, is sufficiently advanced to resuscitate them.

I had a personal experience of ‘freezing my darlings’ when I wrote the story ‘How the Dark Bleeds’ for the excellent new anthology For the Night Is Dark which is just out from Crystal Lake Publishing. Now if you’re one of those terribly cynical individuals who imagine that the only reason I’ve written this entire column is to plug my latest book, you’d be perfectly right. This is the very laboured equivalent of one of those interminable Facebook postings that run along the lines of:

Hey everybody there’s 20% off my latest eBook all this week at Amazon.

But you have to admit it’s been a great ride so far, so you may as well stick around for the sales pitch.

The idea for the story originally manifested in a graphic novel I was pitching to an American publisher. One of the subplots contained a concept that increasingly unnerved and disturbed me. It grabbed hold of the darker side of my imagination and tortured it incessantly, until I was both in love with and terrified of the concept all at once. I had never seen this idea anywhere before and I knew I had to write about it. The only problem was, as amazing as this concept was, the graphic novel I was pitching was better off without it. So it was with great reluctance that I took it out.

For the Night is Dark Edited by Ross WarrenAt around the same time I was stuck for an idea for the short story I was contracted to write for Crystal Lake’s upcoming new anthology. Well not so much stuck, I had plenty of ideas, it’s just that none of them were as good as I thought they ought to be. The pay for writing short stories is frankly lousy, so I always figure that, if I’m going to go to the trouble of writing one, it better be something I really want to write.

Then I remembered the concept that enthralled and unsettled me, the one I’d put in the bottom drawer. If anything, it had grown stronger since I’d dropped it into fictional suspended animation. I found it had been waiting for me and it wanted to take me to places far darker than my fiction had ever been before. It forced me to confront and record the taboos I’d previously shied away from and  to enter those territories I’d always thought of as ‘off limits’ – even as a horror writer.

The experience of writing this story was both exhilarating and excruciating. There were several moments during its composition when I wondered not only if I wanted to finish it, but whether or not I wanted to write another piece of horror fiction as long as I lived. Ultimately, I did live to tell this tale and I will certainly tell others.

With hindsight, I’m glad that I did. The story turned out really well. It scared my publisher and made my editor queasy. Hopefully it will get to you too, no matter how stern your constitution. I’m also glad that I gave it to For the Night Is Dark because it really is a great anthology, full of fiendish stories by a host of rising horror stars that I both rate and admire.

If you only read one book this year – frankly you’d be an idiot! But you’d be a little less of an idiot if you made that book For the Night Is Dark.

If I’ve whet your appetite at all please do use the Amazon Affiliate links below to grab a copy for yourself and everyone you want to scare senseless.


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