On Editing: When to Murder Your Darlings

Last night, for the first time, I deleted a complete chapter from a manuscript.  Sure, I’ve deleted or cropped whole scenes before, or shuffled them around to different sections of the novel, but never have I just said to hell with it, highlighted the entire chapter and cut the entire thing.  And just to drive the point home, I went through the rest of the manuscript and adjusted the chapter numbers.

I’d always had issues with the beginning of The Balance of Light, I’ll be honest.  There’s a lot of great stuff in Book 3, but it gave me a hell of a lot of trouble.  I think it was partly due to not giving myself a break.  Back in late 2003, I’d gone straight from finishing The Persistence of Memories to starting TBoL without downtime in between.  I was on a roll and didn’t want to stop just yet, and that didn’t give me enough time to fully plan out the book’s main plot.

Chapter One, in retrospect, felt a lot more like an unneeded prologue or pre-credits opening scene than a good novel opening.  It had a few interesting ideas, but not enough for it to hold the reader’s interest. It served very little purpose other than to set a mood, and while that might work with some novels, it certainly did not work here.  The action actually starts in the next chapter — in fact, Chapter Two (now the current Chapter One) starts in medias res.  This works a hell of a lot better for the novel as a whole, because TBoL is all about the tension.

How did it feel to delete an entire ten pages’ worth of work?  Well, me being the writer packrat that I am, I didn’t delete it outright; I cut it from the working file and saved it to a ‘deleted scenes’ document.  I’ve done that numerous times for my various writing projects, for a few reasons: one, because I usually don’t like to completely destroy my work, and two, I never know if I might want to use it in a different context elsewhere.

But it was a move I didn’t take lightly.  In fact, it took me a few days to finally make the final decision.  I wasn’t happy with the prose, either…it’s painfully obvious that I was trying way too damn hard.

There’s two things to question with this kind of decision:

  1. Is it worth keeping?  This is the obvious question, the one everyone arrives at first.  Is there a point to it remaining in the book, or is it just filler?  Even if it’s one of your favorite passages, does it help drive the plot in some way?
  2. Will it affect the rest of the plot if I take it out?  This is the less obvious question, one that isn’t always hit upon, but in a way it’s the more important of the two.  If I take out this scene, will it disrupt the evolution of any other scenes?  Is there pertinent information here that is integral to a scene much later on?

In the case of question 1, no.  Maybe a ‘shot’ or two, a short bit of character interaction that I works well, but it’s not important enough to keep it.  I can always insert those shots somewhere else and achieve the same response.

In the case of question 2, yes, but it’s easily fixable.  The chapter starts out with Denni sensing a recently awakened Mendaihu from across the city, before the action ‘pulls back’ (to continue the film references here) to the Warehouse.  This same Mendaihu shows up again about three-quarters of the way through the book* but their two minor scenes can easily be revised or rewritten.

Even more interesting is how this decision affects the mood of the book.  I knew deleting Chapter 1 was going to affect two future scenes, but I was also conscious of how starting with Chapter 2 would do the same.  Instead of starting on a quiet but tense moment, I’m starting with a punch to the head.  Which is good, because now it’s given me something to aim for in terms of dramatic arcs.

And that, my friends, is my One Weird Trick I use when editing: know your story.  And I mean that in the context of knowing it like you know your own life: inside and out, how everything interconnects, how each event affects other events.  This is precisely why I did about a year’s worth of rereading the three books: so I could know it intimately enough that, if I made a decision on one thing, I’d know how it would affect everything else.


*I will totally admit I was flailing at that point.  I was having some serious writers’ block and thought reintroducing an extremely minor character would shake things up.  I’d thought about having this character join Vigil at one point, but it never panned out.  The end result reads as one would expect: an obvious shoehorning of a character for no other reason than ‘oops, I forgot about them, better squeeze them in somewhere.’

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