Decimation of the Darlings

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com

Anyone who has ever read a guide to good writing or listened to an author interview knows that the first and foremost principle of good writing is to murder your darlings.  If a writer finds too much joy in a particularly clever turn of phrase she has coined, or an especially riveting metaphor, or an exceptionally elegant sentence, she must delete it at once, and the adverbs it rode in on.  The rule is clear, if cruel.  Slaughter your pretties though it pierce you to the heart.

There’s no evidence of Shakespeare’s murdered darlings, but he must have slain a few in his day.  A draft exists of a John Milton poem from 1637 showing crossed-out lines and phrases with changes scribbled in the margins.  Of course in the 17th and 18th Centuries, paper was expensive, manuscripts were handwritten, and type was set by hand.  The occasional darling might be rubbed out and replaced, but there was no large scale structural re-ordering, no mass carnage of darlings.  The idea of writing multiple drafts is a 20th Century phenomenon, a luxury made possible by the computer and modern printing technology.  Today’s writers are advised to challenge and re-examine every word, sentence, and paragraph.

I’m currently at work on the umpteenth draft of an historical mystery and I have launched a search and destroy mission.  There can be no pity.  Cut, slash, chop, hack!  It’s a massacre of the adorbs.  Of course one writer’s perfect pearl is another’s rubbish.  Don Roff’s solution to revising his work is to pretend somebody else wrote it and rip the living #@!$& out of it.  It is in that spirit of ruthlessness that I have attacked my manuscript.

One of my first casualties was a fascinating account of the Graham cracker diet.  Many people in the 19th Century believed these crackers suppressed carnal urges and freed their “inflamed brains” from unwholesome cravings and immoral desires.  Much as I’d love to share this valuable dietary tip with my readers, none of my characters will admit to an inflamed brain and the information does nothing to further my plot.  Cracker digression whacked.

I’m enchanted by the story of the “Feegee” mermaid, one of the 500,000 curiosities that drew crowds to Colonel Woods’ Museum in Chicago in the 1860s.  Supposedly fished out of the waters near Japan, Feegee looked suspiciously like the mummified head of a monkey sewn to the back half of a fish.  She nevertheless created a sensation.  I put a super-cute comment about the Feegee hoax into the mouth of my protagonist.  The comment elicited a question, which necessitated an explanation, which brought on a marvelously witty rejoinder.  Pretty soon I had cluttered the dialogue with more detail than anyone could possibly want.  Mermaid axed.  Sayonara, sweetheart.

The decimation of these entertaining historical nuggets is nothing compared to the termination with extreme prejudice of some favorite words.  I adore the word “crepuscular,” the way the syllables ripple and hiss, the way it just melts in the mouth.  I’m also fond of the word “scumble.”  But self-indulgence must be resisted.  Crepuscular may be a shade decorative and it’s probably as unwise to over-scumble one’s prose as it is to over-salt one’s food.  With a pang of regret, I bumped these lovelies off the page.

Internal monologues, though they reveal the profoundest and most blinding of insights, must be examined by a cold and critical eye.  Does a character go on too long about her life prior to chapter 1?  Does she reflect tediously upon the weather or the dress of her fellow cast members?  Does she tend to ramble on about the writer’s own preoccupations and passions?  Stuff a sock in it, sugarpie.  Get a grip and focus on the plot or I’ll have to ice you.

Characters can’t be given a free ride.  If a character is loitering about doing nothing but beautifying the scenery with his infatuating blue eyes and inconsequential doings, kiss the slacker goodbye and snuff him.  To date, I’ve knocked off only one character, but he was a real honey.

Oh, well.  All writing is rewriting.  Nabokov claimed he had rewritten every word he ever published, often several times.  Hemingway believed that anything he could eliminate strengthened his stories.  Stephen King’s formula for revision is:  2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.  “Kill your darlings,” he says, “even if it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart.”

I bury my dead in a file labeled “Edits” and console myself with the thought that someday they might be resurrected in a sequel.  Come to think of it, the word “revise” means literally “to see again.”  Return of the Undead.  I can picture the scene – a mermaid perched upon a Graham cracker arising from a crepuscular sea under a scumbled sky.

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