Demolish Your Darlings

There is a building fairly near my house that’s being demolished: all in all a pretty ugly office block of middling size. It’s been empty for a while, and the only sensible thing to do is smash it up and build something else. Okay, so that area’s not exactly attractive anyway, but…

As I walked home from school yesterday, I watched them attacking it with a crane-thing, and considered the idea of destruction. It’s somewhat fun to watch, and as I mentioned it’s the only logical thing to do, but it’s also sad.

Now, this place is plug ugly. The only reason you’d be fond of it is because you’ve got used to it. It’s always been there, and it’s a concrete (literally) piece of the landscape, so it’s easier just to leave it there even though the area will be better without it.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. It reminds me of the editing/rewriting process, because I’m a writer and therefore I go through life convinced that everything is secretly a metaphor if you think about it for long enough. Honestly, try it – but not out loud, because you’ll sound even more pretentious than Augustus Waters and I didn’t think that was humanly possible.

When I was writing the third draft of The Quiet Ones, I cut a lot of material. Due to changes, whole chapters were abandoned, though sometimes I salvaged a few sentences from the shell to use in building the replacement. I cut lines I loved, scenes I thought were good. Among writers, this is often known as killing your darlings. And I killed a lot of them.

Not all of them. One subplot that didn’t go anywhere, which had been in the previous drafts, stayed. I guess I didn’t really think about it too much: didn’t sit down and think, “Okay, this isn’t actually resolved, it’s fairly pointless, and just confuses things.” (It did resolve in the previous draft, I think, but another subplot got cut in this one which meant it didn’t have a conclusion at all in this version.) It was ugly, but I was used to it, and it reached a point where I didn’t even notice it was there.

One of my beta readers, however, did.

Cait is wonderful. With her reading speed (I watch her Goodreads updates with awe, unable to find time to even attempt to keep up), perhaps it’s not so surprising that she sent me a long critique by email less than a week after I sent her the 96k draft to read. She differs from the others who are reading this version in that she didn’t read the previous one, and has no idea about the old conclusion to that part, so it was obvious to her that it had no resolution in a way it might not have been for someone else.

She’s right, of course. I noticed it myself when I read the draft through. My reply to her was: “Honestly I think it’s lazy of me not to have rewritten it yet. I killed a lot of darlings when I fiddled with the plot this time, and whole sections got cut. That probably should have been one of them”.

Now, I think I’m pretty good at listening to beta readers. This draft came into existence because of the suggestions of those who read draft two and told me what needed work, and as a result it was 24,000 words longer and hopefully a lot better. But this emphasises their importance.

I knew that scene probably needed alteration, but I didn’t do it. Why? Because although it was ugly, I’d got used to it, so it didn’t bother me any more. Like the office block on the corner, there was room for development, but I stuck with what was familiar and ordinary and usual.

Cait walked into the town novel and took one look at that ugly office building failed subplot and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if this was knocked down? You could make this corner so much nicer if you did that.”

And my first thought was, “But demolishing stuff is effort and you have to figure out what you’re gonna put there instead and there’s the clean-up operation that can go on for ages.”

And my second thought was, “Dude, this office block is fugly. Let’s smash it up and build something that’s actually useful.”

So that, my friends, is why the process of revisions is like knocking down buildings, and also why beta readers are important, but let’s stick with the breaking things for the moment. I like using destruction as a metaphor. We’re always so focused on being “creative” with this whole writing malarkey, which is great and fun and stuff, but sometimes we lose sight of the way that most of the process is about destroying what you’ve already done and rebuilding it better.

You can keep building on top, but unless you get rid of the original building, it’s going to be ugly, precarious, and a total waste of time and money. Go forth, friends, and demolish your darlings.

— IN OTHER NEWS —

The central concept of The Quiet Ones is about students who are also knights – but to most people’s surprise, aren’t typically the violent ones. In fact, as the title suggests, they’re usually the quiet ones. Today (two and a half years after the novel first began), I read an article about medieval-style fighters which reassured me this concept is believable. Because, you see:

One particularly sinister knight throws his sword clattering to the floor and takes off his helmet. “Hi, I’m Tom Flint,” he says genially, offering a hand. Flint is 22, and a student studying creative writing with a focus on poetry. “I’m not aggressive normally,” he admits. “It’s always the quiet ones. When they get armor on, they become very, very violent.”

Leaving aside the whole “student knight” thing, even what he says bears remarkable similarities to the comments of one of my characters – comments that were written two years ago. Hmm, maybe I’ve been psychically channelling these guys for a while…

— — —

The St Mallory’s blog is back up and running with a redesigned theme and new posts from Charley and I. Check it out if you get a moment!

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4 thoughts on “Demolish Your Darlings

  1. What was the subplot that you cut?

    Cait is… wild? Productive? Weird? xD I don’t know. I’m amazed by her reading progress. We both have the same Goodreads goal this year, but I’m 1/4 complete and she’s close to 1/2. What even.

    I LOVE THAT ARTICLE IT IS PERFECT THE QUOTE MADE ME GIGGLE.

    Also, the St. Mall’s blog looks wonderful! Very sleek.

  2. GUYS I PROBABLY HAVE NO LIFE OTHER THAN INTENSE READING. CRAZY. WEIRD. THAT IS ALL.

    Okay, kidding. That’s not all. (Since when do I leave manageable sized comments?) Anyway, *blushes fiercely* I LOVED THE QUIET ONES (just in case I didn’t say that, like, clearly earlier) and I’m SO glad my comments were helpful. I’m more glad you trusted me with your baby. Mwhaha. Down with ugly buildings! But down gently, because goodness knows I know how it feels to murder the poor darlings. It breaks your soul. And then you get this victorious feeling afterwards. (Or maybe that’s just me? I might be just plain evil, I’m still waiting on conclusive evidence.)

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