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.


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?


The First Two Hundred and Fifty

The first two hundred fifty words of a manuscript are crucial. They should set the tone for the whole, almost like a novel in miniature. They are your ultimate hook. And because of that importance, you might want to separate those opening words from the rest of the manuscript and look at them alone instead of as a part of a larger whole. Consider your first two hundred and fifty words as flash fiction—flash fiction that’s missing an ending. So what should be expected from flash fiction?

Because of the shortness, flash fiction has to be very alive. Strong and active verbs are a great way to do this. Don’t ‘jump’ when you can ‘leap’ or ‘soar’. Don’t ‘make’ when you can ‘create’ or ‘craft’ or ‘construct’. Forget ordinary verbs and go for active ones. Flash fiction needs to convey emotion, make you feel something. The opening page should set a mood. If the piece is mostly descriptive, that description should invoke atmosphere.

Also, just like flash fiction, your first two-fifty needs to breath or hint conflict. It doesn’t need to be the main conflict of the novel, but is there something to indicate everything is not sunshine and flowers. Conflict is what runs the show and pushes a good novel forward, start off on the right foot by involving conflict.

The characters should have personality and be fully-fleshed. They should use sharp, real-sounding dialogue and stand out as individuals. Flat characters make for boring stories. Create memorable characters.

And finally, because of the limits on words in flash fiction, each and every word has to count. The same should go for your opening page. There shouldn’t be any wasted words that could be cut, such as unneeded tags (said/asked). Watch for useless filtering, using words like ‘heard, saw, looked, thought, realized’ and others. Not only does filtering waste words, but it distances the reader from the action.

Whether you’re entering a contest or trying to entice an agent, it pays to take a long hard look at your first two hundred and fifty words. Separate those beginning paragraphs out from the rest of the first chapter. Consider your opening as a work of flash fiction. Does it provoke interest? The opening words have to be workhorses. They are the sample that first meets the eye, and you need them to do their job.


Be Earnest, They Are

It’s no secret in my family that I write.  So whenever someone has a grammar question, a ‘Rules-of-Storytelling’ question or just basic, can you proofread this, I’m the go-to-guy.  Some time ago, my little sister (the 7-year-old) shows me a piece of paper and asks me ‘Does this story sound like it’s going good?’

It’s literally 2 or 3 lines of 7-year-old writing, which is it’s own category all together.  All I can gather is it’s about a cat that steals stuff, sneaks around to steal stuff and tricks people to steal stuff.  (She watches us play Skyrim, so think cat-person).  Now, she’s 7 so I’m not going to tell her that there’s no real concept of a plot yet, her grammar & spelling is in the pits and I have no attachment to this character what-so-ever.  Instead, I told that it sounded good so far, but there wasn’t much for me to go on yet.

As she’s skipping away I wondered how often the rest of us fall into that trap.  We get an idea, we’re eager, we write a couple of chapters (or maybe even finish the piece) and then run off to show it to a few betas and expect substantial feedback.  To some degree, I can see why.  We want confirmation that our awesome idea is, in fact, awesome.  That first ‘Yay!’ or ‘I can’t wait to read more.’ is critical, it’s an esteem booster.  But what happens when that ‘Yay’ becomes a ‘Nay’?  Then what?  Do we rework those first few chapters so that they’re more awesome?  And if so, what standard are we trying to meet?  Our own or that of those first betas?

This is particularly detrimental if we haven’t even finished the entire work yet.  If you have an entire MS and Beta-Gal doesn’t understand what’s being hinted at in chapter 3, then you’ll pull out the ‘Oh but wait until chapter 56!’ (Which is a whole ‘nother topic.)  If you don’t have your MS finished, then you can’t pull out that ol’ standby because you don’t know what’s going to happen then.  Yeah, you have an inclining, but it hasn’t been written yet.  And let’s face it, things change.  Plots change, characters change, characters die, fat unicorns give out candy–anything can happen! Personally, I don’t believe it’s wise to extensively edit your beginnings when you have no idea what’s going to happen in the end or even the middle.  (*Note I say extensively, some editing as you write isn’t bad at all.)

With my own WIP, there have been parts in earlier chapters that betas told me they didn’t get or it seemed confusing.  My CP even told me an entire scene was good but hard to believe, I was asking the reader to suspend their belief a little too far, a little too close to breaking.  Which sucked because I had no other idea how to tackle that scene.  I NEEDED the characters to go in that direction, but if it wasn’t believable no reader would go past that chapter.  It pained me, but rather than stress that scene, I kept writing.  I’ll admit, part of me was being stubborn.  Part of me wanted to believe that just ’cause it was hard to believe didn’t mean it was impossible and that I could leave it as is.  Well, I kept writing and as I got further in the story something changed.  CharacterB decided to go a different route.  In order for me to make that route work I had to go back to the beginning and add in certain scenes, leave certain hints and guess which scene got caught up in that wave of change?  I wound up re-writing it and I think it works much, much better.  (No word yet from my CP though 😉 )  If I had stressed over that scene earlier and made changes, it would have been for nothing because eventually I would reach the point where CharacterB goes that different route.

Schrodinger’s cat argues that it’s possible I may never have gotten the inspiration that made CharacterB go a different way which changed everything else.  My response?  Exactly.  Anything is possible, until you write ‘The End’ anything is possible.  Just as I couldn’t jump for joy over my sister’s cat-person-thief, you can’t ask a beta to give you appropriate feedback on an incomplete piece, it’s not fair to them or you.  Finish your work, put your all into it, let your CPs read and re-read those various versions, they’re built for it, but give your betas a piece that is as close to finished as you can get it.  Be Earnest, They Are.

What do you think?  Is it better to make extensive changes as you go based on other’s feedback, or to finish the piece, making changes as you go when you feel the need to, and then seek feedback?  Would you rather be eating an ice cream than thinking about editing?  Yeah, me too.