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Monday, October 27, 2014

Killing your darlings...or killing the editor?

From NPR Books:
Whoops, My Dear Watson: Anthony Horowitz, the man behind an upcoming James Bond novel, has a few issues to sort out with Sherlock Holmes first. Sarah Lyall reports in the New York Times that advance reading copies of Horowitz's Sherlock novel Moriarty contain some not-so-subtle clues to his writing process. Notes to his copy editor have been mistakenly left in, littering the text in all-caps — including this frank assessment: "I'M NOT CHANGING THIS."

Knowing how pusillanimously I've proofread the galley copies of each of my books en route to publication, I cringed at the idea of copyediting notes making it to the ARCs when I read NPR Books' recent bulletin. But I laughed out loud at this last line. As a writer, whether you've been published traditionally, used the services of a professional editor, sent your ms to beta readers, been a member of a writer's group or all of the above, you've run up against this declaration. I know I have.

Sure there's the adage, attributed to William Faulkner, to kill your darlings (that sentence you just love every time you reread it? Chances are it's way too precious or self-indulgent. For the greater good of your work, delete it). But sometimes, dammit, that sentence says just exactly what I mean to say and how I mean to say it. In which case, if you're going to tell me to change it, there better be a majority opinion.

This, for better or worse, is a far cry from where I started out. Before and during the writing of A Butler's Life, I was involved in a writer's group. These sage individuals took very seriously their charter to not let one badly-drafted paragraph pass their scrutiny. Each of us read weekly from our WIP, and then accepted the critiques: 

"The first sentence--too long." 
"Um...really, 'pusillanimous?' " 
"Maybe skip the description and just start with the dialogue?" 
"I dunno. I'm just not feeling it." 
And the ever-popular, "What did you say your genre was? Who are you writing for?"

Prior to my attempts to sell the book, I had a preface, an introduction, and three endlessly-picked over and rewritten chapters in hand when I polished my proposal and sent out the package to a handful of agents for comment only. (A Butler's Life is a memoir, and nonfiction is commonly sold on the strength of a proposal.) Freed from the pressure of having to actually accept and sell my book, each was forthright in telling me what wouldn't work, and what would be more readable or salable. 

Problem was, no two opinions were even remotely the same. What one agent liked, another thought superfluous. Yet each new critique I received, I trotted straight over to the computer, opened up a new copy of my manuscript and started pulling it apart. I was hopelessly lost when Chris (the book's subject, by the way) reminded me that the advice, as good as it might or might not be, was still only someone's opinion. The only way I could write and be true to myself was to finish the book as I envisaged it, and then let a professional tell me what should be changed, if anything.

I was listening to too many voices. Until I had my voice down on paper--the work completed to the best of my ability--it was too soon to enlist the help of others, however well meaning.

So I wrote the book I heard in my head, got my feedback, and learned when to say "thank you" and when to say "no." 

Don't misunderstand me; I am far from an expert. I am simply a scribbler who will only improve over time with practice, patience, and good advice. And one of the most valuable lessons I have learned over time is that when someone (especially multiple someones) questions something in your work, you haven't made it clear enough. And I strive to write for clarity, that what I mean is what my readers understand.

Which means, sometimes, having to kill your darlings. 

But occasionally, it also means saying "I AM NOT CHANGING THIS."

(True confession: I save all my dead darlings in a file to be resurrected in another work if warranted. What do you do?)