Murder For Fun and Profit

No, I’m not promoting a hit-person service. I refer to the well-worn adage concerning self-editing, a topic that surfaces as often as its familial admonition:  murder your darlings. Credit to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch for the oft-repeated advice.

In certain types of speculative fiction, the advice applies as well in a different, more literal sense.  We build evil characters and kill them off, always remembering, of course, that a villain is the hero of his own story. Even in the foulest character, there should be aspects that you empathize with. Something that makes you, the writer, and you, the reader care. And then…Blam! Squish!

Or, in demonstrating the extent of evil your beloved villain is capable of, you might show the threat to your protagonist, or his girlfriend/her boyfriend/husband/wife/dog by first having him (you) murder one or two lesser characters. Would anyone care, if they didn’t first care for the characters? No. So you create someone to love, and then…

I created a character in a novel and had her killed off. But I’d grown so attached to her, I rewrote so that she hadn’t really died. She walked through the rest of the story like a zombie with nothing to add except her presence. Guess what. She had to die a second time. I had to murder her twice. Better off dead, poor woman.

So I should have learned, right? But no. In the same book, I did it again with a major character. I and my characters loved him too much to let him go. In the end, he had to, though. Tough decision, but putting them both back into their graves made the story stronger.

But first I had to see, clearly, that my love for them added nothing to the tale, and, in fact, lessened its impact.

A post by another of our writers, T.J., recently reminded me of an aspect of this, be it in storytelling or in self-editing. It was a post on editing, but something I learned in gardening and landscaping grabbed me from reading her post.

BE RUTHLESS.

In creating and maintaining a good landscape (which we do with words when we write), you have to cultivate ruthlessness. If a plant isn’t performing or has overgrown its space (poor planning on the gardener’s part), you can’t coddle it, or spend your life pruning it to a shape that fits but that isn’t right for the plant. You’ve got to dig it up, plant it somewhere else (in writing, I keep folders for “outtakes”) or just dump the poor thing.

People are going to spend more time and closer attention to your writing than your garden, so taking out (or moving) anything that doesn’t work is critical. Not timidly. Ruthlessly (as in cutting too many –ly adverbs.)

In the first pass, this isn’t so difficult. We cut huge chunks of absolutely brilliant prose with self-satisfaction. We didn’t need a page to describe the room. We didn’t even need a long paragraph. Ah, there now. I feel so much better, and so virtuous.

It’s that second or third pass. The fine-tuning. Everyone edits differently, but we all get to a place where we have to make some really hard decisions. A few lines that have held on. A short scene that is so tight and well-written. (Or a character or two who didn’t want to be dead.)

Oh, murder most foul!

Kill the suckers! No mercy. And if you did your job and made them characters (yes, even your bad guys), or scenes, paragraphs, even phrases that you and we love (or love to hate), it’s that much harder to do. And that much more rewarding to have done it, when you step back and view the finished work.

And there’s the fun. The satisfaction of doing the hard work. The profit? Not royalties (wonderful as they may be.) It’s how the work profits from our merciless killing sprees. And how we, as writers, profit in honing our craft, sharpening our eyes and the skill with which we deploy the sharp blade of the delete key.

It’s what we do, after all. Build worlds, people them, and then torment, torture, sometimes destroy. Our craft requires us to do it regularly. With vigor. With precision.

So, fellow hit-persons. Garrote? Scalpel? Other than great CPs and beta readers, what are your most useful tools and techniques?

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8 thoughts on “Murder For Fun and Profit

  1. E.F. Jace says:

    I’m one of those people that edit as I write, it makes the writing process take so much longer, yes, but it makes it easier for me to feel confident enough to move forward with the scene/chapter/plot. There are times though when I need to go back and cut lines or paragraphs, I’m still fairly new to the track changes feature on Word and it is my new best friend. Usually there’s at least one line or two that you’ve been debating cutting for some time, so I go back and cut them (with track changes on) and then wait a few days or even weeks, then I re-read the chapter with the lines cut (or edited) without paying any mind to the annotation of what was. If it doesn’t feel weird or I can’t off hand remember what it even used to be, I’m on the right track. Generally the fact that I keep going back to certain portions and questioning myself over and over is a huge indicator that -something- has to change.

    Killing off characters is always hard. I’ve removed 3 characters from the original version of my current MS. It was a tough decision to make and in the end, I didn’t even consciously make it. I didn’t sit down and try to think how the story would work without them, how would I rearrange things, I just wrote it without them, and it STILL flowed. Even better than it had before in fact. It enabled me to focus on the real plot and character developments I was trying to get to. Before, I thought they were essential but in actuality they were just slowing things down.

    It’s certainly not easy but it’s got to happen at some point!

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, E.F. I know a lot of writer’s craft books on editing tell us not to edit at all on our first drafts. Just keep going, know it’ll be bad with a ton of useless digressions and such. Others, like you, and me, do some editing as we go along. I haven’t ever used track changes mode on a first draft, but it sounds like it might be a helpful idea. I just read over what I’ve written the day or so before to get myself back into the flow, and I’ll do some editing on that read. I also make notes of things to revisit, but I do try to keep going and wait until I’ve got a full draft before I really start the hard editing. I find your path isn’t ever really clear until you know where it leads, the ending. (But then I tend to be a pantser other than having a good idea, before I begin, of the story’s skeleton and the characters’ paths.) Once you know the full story arc, it’s easier to see what doesn’t really fit and what is just slowing it down.

    It is amazing to discover that the eradication of a beloved character (or scene, or sub-plot), while it seems so hard to do, can be so liberating when, as you say, things flow with them gone. So, aye, there’s the fun and the profit.

  3. Moonshade says:

    I just recently had to do worse than killing off a beloved character– I erased him from existence. I loved him, I slathered attention on him, but when all was said and done, he was an unnecessary loose end, and he had to be pulled out.

    And dear God, did it hurt. I think it’s tighter without him. I’ve just got to tuck in the loose ends that are the reactions other characters had to him. Wish me luck!

    • I feel your pain. Save him in an outakes folder or something. At least he can live there until you might use him elsewhere. But I’m sure your MS is the better for your murder. 😉 Relish your position as a goddess of your written world as you erase all traces of him from the other characters’ reactions. Mwa ha ha. *BEG*

  4. Peter Burton says:

    Far more than interesting, Richard.

    This article was well thought, and from my perspective, spooky.

    Mostly, because you touched on several points I was wondering about for a villain in my WIP. Now I know I was on the right track with what I have in mind.

    Thanks! 🙂

  5. Many thanks, Peter. Always glad to be of some help to a partner in, well, whatever you want to call what it is we do. 🙂

  6. tjloveless3 says:

    Great blog! And so true. I’m almost done with this WIP – and I already know of several pieces that will need to be sliced and diced. Ah, it’s good to be ruthless 🙂

  7. Thanks, tj, and yes, it’s good to be ruthless, with both abandon and care. Heartless, but with heart. Wield the scalpel with the artist’s eye. Enjoy that slicing and dicing.

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