Killing Your Darlings

Writing is a bit like giving birth; not just because it’s painful and messy and involves an awful lot of screaming and crying, but because you spend months (or years) of your life bringing a little part of you into the world, and even more time trying to mold it into the best version of itself.

So it’s natural to become attached to your work.

And just like it’s hard to hear criticism of your children, it can be difficult to hear criticism of your writing as well. And even more difficult to act upon that criticism.

Especially if doing so involves killing your darlings.

*Wonders if I should rethink this analogy. Keeps going anyway.*

Where was I again? Oh, right.

Killing your darlings. Deleting or changing beloved words/sentences/paragraphs/chapters/characters/plotlines/etc in your precious, precious work to (gasp!) improve it overall.

In revising my MG Fantasy, I just removed/rewrote my favourite parts: the witty, acerbic dialogue between my two MCs. Why? Well, because critiques had helped me realize their voices were two similar.

As much as I loved seeing my two characters snipe at each other, they couldn’t both be masters of snark. Not only was it confusing for readers, but it went against one MC’s personality. So, it’s gone.

Did it hurt? Damn Skippy.

But is the book better for it? I certainly believe it is.

And, as I enter my (hopefully) final revisions before sending it out into the world, I’ll be looking for more darlings that aren’t contributing to the overall quality of the book. Because no part of your manuscript should be considered too precious to improve* (insert gif of Gollum here).

*Not saying that every critique you receive will be right, or carry the same weight, but if you get multiple critiques of the same issue, it’s definitely worth considering ways to improve things.

 

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The Magic of Showers

Writing is hard.

Or at least, writing a good, coherent story with zero plot holes, engaging characters, and gripping stakes is hard.

Some days the words don’t want to come

For me, when I hit one of these blocks, it usually means something in the story isn’t working – I just haven’t noticed it yet. But my subconscious has, and it’s the one throwing up road blocks trying to get me to slow down before I write myself off a cliff.

Or something like that.

The point is, that sometimes I need to walk away. Not permanently. Not even for very long. But (for me at least, YMMV) sitting and staring at the dreaded pulsing cursor of doom is not helpful.

What works for me is getting my butt up out of the chair and doing something relatively brainless, so my mind can wander and try to deal with whatever plot bunnies are plaguing me. Good tasks for this include showering, cleaning the house, and going for a walk.

In fact I can credit a shower with last week’s solution to a plot issue in my MG Fantasy. I’ve been working on this book on and off for years with the help of an agent and editors, but none of us even noticed this plot problem, let alone the relatively simple way to fix it (okay, while the fix is simple, actually incorporating it into the book will take a little more effort).

The point is: that’s how magic showers are. And bonus: they also get you all clean and stuff.

Sticks and Stones…

….Will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Except that’s not true at all, is it?

Words have a great power to harm, either intentionally or accidentally. Whether it’s a well-chosen barb, an unfortunate nickname, or a phrase taken the wrong way, words are definitely capable of inflicting pain.

Perhaps even worse are words and phrases with sinister origins, insults that come from denigrating someone’s disability, mental capacity,  or stability. Some of these words are so ingrained on our language, we don’t even recognize them for they are. Words like lame, stupid, idiot, mental, and psycho all reinforce the idea that deviating from “normal” is worthy of derision.

Now, if you’re like me, your first instinct might be to resist. But it’s just a word. I use it all the time. It’s too hard to change.

But language is constantly evolving, as are the people who use it.

Don’t believe me? When I was a kid, “retarded” was a pretty standard schoolyard insult for everything we didn’t like, from people to TV shows to shoelaces. You probably winced reading that just now. I know I cringed when I typed it. In just thirty years that one word has gone from a common insult to a scandalous word. I’d bet my kids have never even heard it. (As it should be.)

So it can happen.

As writers, I think we have a responsibility, not only to do no harm with our words, but to act as agents of change. If we all filtered these ableist words out of our work, maybe they’d slowly disappear from language as a whole.

But, if the idea of eliminating these words for the sake of others isn’t enough motivation for you, then consider it a writing challenge. When I deleted “stupid” and “lame” from my YA (I hate to admit how many instances there were, since I tend to channel teenage me while writing YA) I was forced to come up with much more inventive and descriptive insults to replace them. I’d gotten lazy with my adjectives, and having to change them, made my writing stronger.

(As a starting point, check out these two posts by care2care and Autistic Hoya on alternatives to ableist language, which also help identify other ableist words to avoid.)

Maybe if we all work hard enough at removing ableist language from our work, in time books that include these words will be looked at the same way we’d look at a book using the R-word today, as outdated and insensitive relics from a harsher time.

 

I shudder at some of the words I used as kid, before I understood the history behind them.

Developing the Character’s Journey

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As you may remember from last week, I recently tore apart an old MG and began making a new draft from the remains. So there I was, 14,000 words into this draft, when I realized the first few chapters didn’t really mesh with where the story seemed to be wanting to head.

So I went back and tried to re-write the beginning. Then I did it again. And again. And then a fourth time, because apparently I’m a slow learner.

Finally I realized, it wasn’t the story’s opening that wasn’t working, it was something deeper.

What could it be? I had a gripping plot. Characters I loved. Fleshed out villains with believable motivation. But…maybe my MC’s journey wasn’t as strong as it could be. She wasn’t changing enough over the course of the story, and the one obstacle she did have to overcome wasn’t exactly a major, life-changing one.

Great. All I had to do was fix that, and I’d be on my way.

After a few hours of alternating between staring at a blank screen and checking in on Twitter, I finally decided to start reading some writing blogs to see if they could steer me in the right direction. And it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Seriously.

I’m not sure what Google gods got me to this page, but if you’re a writer, I seriously suggest you check out K.M. Welland’s Creating Stunning Character Arcs series starting here. It really helped me figure out my character and how she needed to grow, as well as figuring out the plot of the story.

I’m super excited to be writing away again, and I’m already at over 8,000 words in less than a week (with two P.D./holidays in there to slow me down). I don’t normally plot my stories out this thoroughly before writing (I’m a plotter-pantser combo), but this time erring more on the side of plotter definitely seems to be the way to go.

The Perils of Saving for Later*

My collection of cute cupcake wrappers - all just waiting for the perfect occasion to be used.
My collection of cute cupcake wrappers – all just waiting for the perfect occasion to be used.

I have a confession to make: I’m a saver. Not quite a hoarder (although my husband might have a different opinion), but I have a definite tendency to hold onto things for just the right occasion. That gorgeous new shirt I bought? Save it for a special night out. Those super-cute cupcake wrappers? Have to be kept for the perfect party treat. Those fancy stickers? One day, I’ll need a card for them to decorate.

Only eventually, that gorgeous shirt doesn’t fit anymore, those cupcake wrappers have faded, and those stickers have lost their stick. All my saving resulted in me losing out.

The same applies to writing. It’s easy to hold onto the perfect idea for the sequel to your book. I’ve done it myself. But if your first book doesn’t sell, that perfect idea may never make it onto the page.

And maybe that perfect idea is what your first book was missing. What would have pushed your not-quite-publishable idea over into the can’t-put-it-down category.

I understand that as a writer, you have to leave yourself room to expand the story and the world. Every book should go just a bit farther. I mean, if J.K. Rowling had introduced Horcruxes in The Philosopher’s Stone it wouldn’t have made sense – we needed the other books to build up to that point.

But what if she’d held off introducing Voldemort until later? Or Hermione? Or Harry’s dead parents? Would we have been as engrossed in the story?

The point is, you should strive to make your first story as strong as it can be, even if it means using up your good ideas – because if that book never gets published, your amazing ideas will just go to waste. And if you use your idea and your book does get published, well, you’ll have the incentive to come up with an even better idea!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go bake some cupcakes, while wearing my new shirt.

What about you? Are you an idea hoarder or do you make sure to use up all the good ideas you get? Tell me about it in the comments.

*PS This does not apply to money (which I also obsessively save), because I really think everyone should have a rainy day fund for if/when things go wrong.

Thanking my Lucky Stars

Seraphina's B-Day & Fam Reunion 188

So, last week was kind of a crappy week for me. Aside from all of the depressing news, I was also dealing with some personal stuff, plus my (never-freaking-ending) health issues, among other things. But it could have been worse.

Remember how happy I was to finally finish this draft of my YA? The one I’ve been struggling to finish for months?

Well, I was working on revising, when Word shut down on me. No big deal, right? I mean, I’d saved it recently, at most I was going to lose the last change or two I’d made that day – and since I still had my crit notes available, it wasn’t going to take much to fix it.

Except…

When I re-opened my doc, it was corrupted in a way I’ve never seen before. All the revisions I’d done that morning were there, except instead of being Chapter 23, it was now called Chapter 22. After much searching, I discovered Chapter 20 had simply disappeared, adjusting the numbering of the following chapters – until Chapter 26, after which the numbering started over at Chapter 1. Oh yeah, and those two new chapters I wrote last week to finally finish my draft? Gone. Poof!

Fortunately for me, I’d emailed myself a copy right after I finished those two new chapters. And, even more fortunately, last week kept me so busy with all its stresses, I hadn’t done any work on it since I’d emailed the copy – so I was actually able to piece my draft back together without too much effort (and only a few tears).

So, let this be a lesson for all of you. Back up your work.

Let me say that again: BACK UP YOUR WORK!!!

Seriously, this could have been a terrible end to an already horrible, no good, very bad week. Instead, I was able to take a deep breath, thank my lucky stars, and move along.

Now go back up your work!

 

 

Revising Gone Wrong

I couldn't find an appropriate cake photo today, so instead enjoy this coffee-filter butterfly craft. Because: filters?
I couldn’t find an appropriate cake photo today, so instead enjoy this coffee-filter butterfly craft. Because: filters?

I’ve written before about filter words, and how those annoying little guys have a nasty habit of getting between you and your reader. All those pesky “heard”s, “thought”s, “saw”s, and “wondered”s (just to name a few) stop the reader from getting right into the main character’s head (yes, even when you’re not writing in a 1st person POV).

But removing filter words only helps when you replace them with something better. After all, the whole point of revising is to make your story stronger. So here are two filter word replacement strategies to avoid.

The verb “to be”

One of the ways people replace their filter words is with the verb to be.

I saw a house on the hill. -> There was a house on the hill.

And that’s okay, in moderation. Until you get to a longer description:

There was a house on a hill. It was surrounded by acres of lush green grass. On either side of the door were two rosebushes which were filled with butterflies. Above that, there  two windows were sitting half open that were like a pair of half-closed eyes staring back at me.

So how do you fix it? Try taking out all uses of the verb “to be” – this includes passive verbs (were filled), progressive verbs (were sitting), and any “there” statements. Rewrite it using active constructions and more dynamic verbs. Something like:

A house sat on the hill, surrounded by acres of lush green grass. Butterfly-filled rosebushes climbed up trellises on either side of the door. Above that, two half-open windows gave the impression of half-closed eyes staring back at me.

Better, right?

Questions

Another way of replacing filter words (especially those like “pondered,” “wondered,” “worried,” etc) is with a question. After all, the idea is to get inside the character’s head and tell us what they’re thinking, without the filter.

I wondered why he’d say something like that. -> Why would he say something like that?

And, again, this isn’t too bad – once in a while. But if your character is really thrashing out an issue, too many questions can quickly weaken your story:

Why would he say something like that? How can he expect me to just walk away from the race? Doesn’t he realize I’ve been training for years for this? Or is he worried I’ll end up in accident, like the one that killed his brother?

The key here to use more statements.

Why would he say something like that? I can’t just walk away from the race. I’ve been training for years for this. Just because his brother ended up in an accident, doesn’t mean I will.

Your character runs the story, let him or her be decisive in their thoughts. No one wants to follow a wishy-washy character for 200 pages.

So there you have it, my best advice for how (not) to replace filter words.

What about you? Ever caught yourself filtering your work? Are you a question junkie? Addicted to all forms of “to be”? Let me know in the comments.

Writer @k_callard shares her tips on eliminating filter words from your writing and what (not) to replace them with. http://wp.me/p4iSYz-i3  (Click to tweet)