Read your own compositions, and when you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
Samuel Johnson, from James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791
Excellent advice. (I once presented this maxim to a writing class, trying to remember which great man had originally proposed it. In fact, half the great writers in history have said the same thing in one way or another.)
Lose a few chapters, gain a book
But in practice this is one of the hardest rules a writer has to apply. A recent case in point:
The first two books in Magic Circles are part of one story, but I wrote them so they’d serve as stand-alone novels. Genesis 2.0 is the sequel, in narrative terms, but MOM could equally well come later as a prequel.
Ellie, at CDP, asked to see MOM after she’d already offered a contract for Genesis 2.0. After looking, however, she told me she didn’t like MOM. One thing she liked about Genesis was the way it began, and she didn’t like MOM’s first few chapters. Well, okay, I said. But it’s too bad you didn’t read farther into the manuscript. I followed that up with a sulky tinge to my subsequent emails, subtle things.
A couple of weeks later Ellie sent a message saying she and her colleagues finally had read farther, and liked what they found. But how would I feel about losing some stuff up front? Quite a bit of stuff, actually.
Great, I thought. Vandalize my book.
Passages so polished it hurt to look at them in the sun
It turns out she simply lopped about 10,000 words off the front end, a series of short chapters I’d slaved over, polishing the buggers till it hurt to look at them in the sun. Jasus, jasus, I thought. Then I looked more closely. In fact that procedure had been precisely what the doctor ordered. After a bit of patching up, MOM was a significantly better book for the surgery.
And the good Dr. Johnson was right. Not to mention Ellie.
Another bright side
Whatever. The computer has made it easier, both practicably and psychologically, to kill your favorite bits. These days, a quick dance on the keyboard is all that’s needed to consign the superfluous bon mots to another digital file, and Bob’s your uncle. Posterity gets to heave a sigh of relief and the writer can get on with the writing, secure in the knowledge that someday, for some reason, he may get to use those priceless passages somewhere or another. Even if, realistically, he’ll never see them again and, even if he does, he’ll probably wonder why he bothered keeping them.
And yet another one
Even better news for me: the CDP surgeons can’t find anything they want to excise from Genesis 2.0.
(Here’s something more about “killing your darlings” I’ve just found online in Slate.)
And still more: