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On Killing Your Darlings

Thomas Edison once said: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

Given old Edison’s penchant for plagiarism and general skulduggery we should take anything that comes out of his mouth with a grain of salt but the above quote does have a bit of truth to it. Especially once it’s combined with another famous quote: “Kill your darlings”

For years I (and, no doubt, thousands of other aspiring writers) have heard these words as prophecies of doom in regards to their work. That, sooner or later, you will have to pull the trigger and edit out a favorite phrase, line, scene, etc. And, like many aspiring writers, I didn’t think that this would happen to me and, if it did, it couldn’t possibly be THAT big of a deal.

A line can be replaced. A scene can be altered or removed. It makes no difference so long as it betters the story. I thought that until two days ago.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have just killed a 120,000 word potential novel because it just didn’t work.

First, let me back up and explain.

I have been working for almost a whole year on the sequel to my first self published novel Avalon’s Lost. The writing process came in fits and starts but, just like the Grinch, it came all the same. When I hit the big, imposing PUBLISH button on Kindle Direct Publishing for Lost I had already several chapters of its sequel already under my belt.

The plot for my sequel was challenging, bigger and broader than anything I had ever attempted before. While Lost’s plot had been relatively straight forward, this time I wanted something more surprising. I wanted a plot full of twists and turns, red herrings and shocking reveals. The ideas infected my brain like a fever. I wrote them all down on a white board set up in my bedroom with a timeline of the novel’s events so I could keep track of all the moving pieces.

It was an ambitious undertaking but I thought, “What the hell. If I put the pieces together correctly, I can make it work. I could have a real gosh darn mystery novel on my hands.”

Fast forward a few months later, I was at 90,000 words (Lost’s length when it was published) and I wasn’t even close to the climax of my new story yet. My novel had become bloated, cumbersome under the weight of its own subplots and half-formed ideas. I knew something was wrong but I hadn’t lost hope yet.

Avalon’s Lost was lengthy too, at first,” I thought. “But that’s what editing is for, right? I’ll trim the fat and after a few more drafts it’ll be the same length come publishing time. No problem, right?”

Right?

A month ago, my old laptop died (unfortunately, not under mysterious circumstances) and I had to have it replaced. Of course, I backed up my work but I had lost two or three chapters that I had recently written. I thought rewriting the lost chapters would be a cinch but every time I opened up my word processor on my new computer something felt off. Wrong, even.

I retraced my steps, forcing myself to recreate scenes from memory. Stuffing in expository dialogue like foam into an overstuffed mattress. Then it came to me two days ago, an epiphany as suddenly as lightning (to borrow a line from Bob Hoskins) striking my brain.

I was forcing myself to enjoy my own novel. It wasn’t fun anymore.

“Why?” I wondered. “How could this have happened?”

I took an objective step back, looked over what I had written with a critical eye. The realization was horrifying but not unexpected, like a man realizing he has lung cancer after a series of horrible and bloody coughing fits.

I had written a bad novel. I had, for nearly a year, produced almost 120,000 words of pure dreck.

Panic set in. Denial. I mentally searched for some way to save my novel. Maybe if I removed this or that plot point, I might be able to make the rest of it work. No, I can’t do that. If I remove that plot thread then the whole thing comes crashing down. I needed to resuscitate life back into my novel but I couldn’t find anyway to do it without taking a sledgehammer to at least one of my key plots, forcing me into massive rewrites.

I bashed my head against my desk. Wailed, groaned. Gnashed my teeth. “I’m losing it,” I thought. “Dear God in heaven, I’m losing my novel!”

And then, I can’t say precisely when, everything was clear.

I had written a bad novel.

The fact was right there in front of me and it no longer seemed so damning. I not only accepted the fact; I welcomed it.

I had written a bad novel and there was only one option left for me: to start over from scratch. Abandon the old plot and begin anew.

Stephen King in his excellent and aptly titled book On Writing referred to a theme in his other book Misery as being about the “redemptive power of writing.” Only today do I realize what he meant by that.

I have pulled the life support on my 120,000 word clunker. I have let it die a quiet death in the darkest corner of my hard drive. Alone and forgotten.

Then, yesterday, I did the hardest and most liberating thing I have ever done in my life. I clicked on my Open Office icon, selected from the menu NEW DOCUMENT, and I titled it “Chapter 1”.

It’s been two days since my realization. Two days and I have two new chapters written for my next, upcoming novel Avalon Knights. I killed my darling and I feel like a new man. Invigorated. Inspired.

Ladies and gentlemen, I didn’t spend almost a year of my life failing to write a novel. I spent almost a year learning how not to write a novel and I’m the better off for it.

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