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.
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?