ON MURDERING YOUR DARLINGS
On this, the official publication day of my first book, I was reminded of John Steinbeck’s quote, which I will have to paraphrase as I haven’t seen it in print for over thirty years. It runs something like this: “On the day I was praised for my work, I looked back over what I had done; that day, I made nothing new.”
For some reason, that quote has stuck in my head for the whole of my writing career – if you dwell on the good writing already accomplished, you aren’t creating, you’re smugging.
Well, that’s no good. So today, I was determined to do something creative, and, thanks to a revelatory conversation with my daughter Harriet, achieved an immensely therapeutic, giant step forward for the writing of my current Work in Progress (WIP).
This book has been in the making, on and off – mostly off, to tell the truth - for eleven years now. The main problem, throughout all the writing, has been the structure. Chatting with Harriet this afternoon, we agreed that the problem with the structure was a single element of the content, which seemed to go off at a tangent to the rest of the book. In the face of this diagnosis, I hesitated; to remove this element would be to murder several warped, weird darlings who worked rather well together.
How long is that section? Harriet asked. Hang on, I said, I’ll block it and check the word count. I was expecting it to be around 20K words, but it was actually almost 40K – almost half a book in its own right, and almost a third of the current WIP’s 140K length.
There’s your problem, Harriet said. It’s another book. It shouldn’t be there!
When I cut and pasted the text to a new document, my WIP shrank to 101K – but there was a newborn next to it, already half-grown. So I didn’t exactly murder my darlings, just put them on ice. Performing major surgery turned a book with two heads into two books with a head apiece.
There is nothing so slippery as a WIP – it’s a large, unpredictable organism with many arms, legs and working parts, and can sprawl in all directions, or slither out of your grasp altogether if you haven’t got a good grip on it. That grip is the structure. Today, I remembered a valuable lesson – pick up the red pen, or sharpen your delete button, and regularly subject your WIP to a good, hard-eyed hack. Writing a book is not a sentimental process of creation, it’s a ruthless act of ensuring the survival of the fittest - the best characters, the best storylines, the best language – while anything lame, boring, repetitive or not working, gets the chop. Sometimes, a writer has to create with one hand, and be a bit of a serial killer with the other.