Friday, June 6, 2014


King has no problem "killing his darlings".

Every writer needs a good editor.  Or is it every good writer needs an editor?  Or maybe even a good writer needs a good editor?

Take your choice.  Better yet, find an editor to tell you which sentence has the most impact.  It happens Spacefreighters Lounge is short on crew; we have to navigate the asteroid fields of the English language without benefit of editorial guidance.  So I think I’ll put it:  Even a great writer needs an editor.

Pippa has mentioned she’s going through re-edits on her novel, Keir.  Similarly, I’m deep in the second round of edits on my manuscript, Unchained Memory.  We’ve lost Sharon for days at a time while she’s gone through edits on her novels—jeez, I can’t remember, how many books is it now? :-)  (And just wait, Laurie, your time is coming!  This is a warning!)

The revision process is grueling, even when the manuscript is in good shape to start with and both parties are willing and cheerful.  Every little comma and awkward phrase must be vetted by two people—the editor first, then the author.  Sometimes it’s a matter of style, though with my editor that’s rare.  More often, the editor is seeking to clarify what was brilliantly transparent in my mind, but was muddy and opaque to the reader.   That requires a lot of commenting back and forth in the margins, now done easily through the computer’s “Track Changes” function, thank God.  (Oh, yes.  I’m old enough to remember when it was all done by hand.  In red pen.  Think we double-space and leave big margins for no reason?)

What is amazing to me is how many little plot holes my editor has discovered.  If my manuscript was a dinghy, I’d be drowning in the middle of the lake right now.  And this after no fewer than a dozen people had read it, sometimes more than once.  I’d like to think it’s a tribute to my fluid writing style (she said modestly) that everyone was so caught up in the story they didn’t notice these little flaws.  But my lovely editor homed in on them like the Sherlock Holmes of the literary world.  And I had to fix them, each and every one.  Did I say this process was exhausting?

Some of the questions that have arisen are a direct result of trimming the word count of the first chapters to meet the requirements of contests.  It’s been a relief to be able to use a few more words of dialogue, for example, to clarify what the character really meant, or to add a line or two of description to fill in the scene.  The overall word count has not expanded greatly, but some things are a lot clearer as a result of these few changes.  (Just another reminder that the contest environment is an artificial one in a lot of ways. The manuscript has to be “massaged” for each contest you enter, and the winning entry may not always be your best work.)

Given the sensitive nature of the revision process, it’s inevitable that disagreements will occur.  The editor might suggest the drastic paring of scenes or the complete elimination of scenes or favorite characters.  He or she may think what you believe to be a gorgeously creative descriptive paragraph to be useless fluff.  Hopefully, your editor, like mine, will be diplomatic about pointing these things out.  And hopefully you will be able to take a deep breath and sort out which battles are worth fighting.

As I went through my first round of edits, I had plenty of opportunity to remember a piece of advice I first read in Stephen King’s On Writing "kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings." I’ve discovered to my great loss that this means you must eliminate anything that does not propel the plot toward its grand conclusion, no matter how intriguingly written it may be.  That includes winsome characters, fantastic scenes, snappy lines of dialogue, images that linger in your mind, and even turns of phrase that would make your English professor weep.  **Sigh**

Does that leave me with a dull book, full of spare, Hemingway-esque grunts and a straight-line plot?  No.  It just means everything must serve a purpose.  And, no, entertainment alone is not the purpose.  Or, at least not my entertainment alone.

A good editor will find those darlings for you to kill.  A good editor has no heart when it comes to such things, though, in the end, he or she may love your book almost as much as you do. 
Next week:  A review of EDGE OF TOMORROW.  Emily Blount shoots Tom Cruise in the head over and over again to save Earth from aliens!  What’s not to like?


Join the discussion over at the SFR Brigade blog about Michelle Browne’s analysis of the state of SFR in Technowank vs. Character Drama: Which One is King?

Cheers, Donna


  1. So all of you are running to Google trying to figure out what the evil blog gremlins stole from my post, eh? The quote was "Kill your darlings, kill your darlings,even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings." So much for making THAT point! Sorry!

  2. I saved your darlings. Or at least your quote about darlings. ;) I still remember the moment I removed the last of my favorite, oh so clever (ha!) turns of phrase in GHOST PLANET. Thank God. Here's to fabulous editors everywhere!

  3. I cried over my first professional edits. And there were phrases I loved that I had to cull. But the story was so much better, so much stronger for it. And the editor who made me cry is the one I now use for all my freelance stuff, and who I will always run stuff by and know she'll give me an honest opinion. I have two stories waiting for revamps because she didn't feel they were there. The stories she's worked on with me have won awards. And it taught me to be much more ruthless with my writing, especially when I self edit. Nine times out of ten I'll leave a phrase I just KNOW she'll tell me to take out, but I can't always resist the lure of a little purple prise even now. :P
    But editing is a big emotional drain. I've done little else this year so far, and I'm exhausted. Fortunately I'm now more than halfway. Not so many darlings left to kill. >.<

  4. I think sometimes we writers get so impressed by some phrase or passage that it takes a good editor with fresh eyes to convince us it just doesn't belong.
    Truth hurts!

    But that which does not kill us... LOL


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