There’s a sort of push-pull, dance-to-the-death between writers and editors that rarely breaks out in actual physical violence but none-the-less leaves emotional scars. I’m not referring to disagreements over the placement of a comma or the appropriate use of passive voice. I’m talking about flat out murder… the killing of darlings.
As my editor Greg Herren explains it…
As painful as it is, sometimes a writer will write an extremely beautiful sentence–it just sings and is clever and wonderful and—just doesn’t really fit in the narrative. In fact, it jars the reader out of what they are reading. I call it ‘author intrusion’–”see how beautifully I can write?”
There’s nothing wrong with using language beautifully, or creating lovely images with words. But it has to fit with the sentences and paragraphs before and after, otherwise it interrupts the flow–and you don’t want that.
Oh but Greg you are so wrong – that’s exactly what I want. I want my readers to be jarred out of their complacency by the sheer elegance and beauty of my words. I want them to see my oh-so-heavy hand as I craft another glorious phrase and take flight on another visual bunny trail, with my sentences painting pictures in their minds even when if their focus is pulled away from the story.
I want them to say, “Wow, that’s cool… who is this guy? I wish I could write like that. I’m going to print this saying on a T-shirt. I’m going to tattoo this phrase on my buttocks. I’m going chisel this slogan on my headstone. I’m going to run naked through the streets screaming these words …”
OK, maybe not that run through the streets thing, but you catch my drift. I want to be the one that brings universal truth to light in a series of witty, elegant and thought provoking expressions.
Or at least part of me wants to be that guy. The other part wants a readable and well-designed story.
Still, when I spend three weeks writing and re-writing the same sentence – struggling over word choice and placement and syntax and rhythm, turning over options for hours and hours until late one night, I wake from a fitful sleep and bound from my bed shedding sheets like the skin of a serpent, tripping over my backpack and nearly impaling my face on a bedside lamp, just so I can make it to my computer before the perfect slogan escapes my sleep-addled brain, and then I smile and do a little happy dance and pat myself on the back because the words are too beautiful, and the world is too beautiful, and I’m too beautiful, to hold in all that beauty – it’s a little difficult to see it deleted from the manuscript on the first editing pass.
This probably explains why writers drink heavily.
When I send off a manuscript and get back the edited copy, the first thing I do, after pouring myself a stiff drink of course, is hunt out my darlings. I hold my breath until I locate the sweeties and if they’re gone, after pouring myself another drink, I pout, and curse, and stomp around the room threatening to call my publisher, or my agent, or my mother (because no one wants to hear from my mother). After another drink, I realize that maybe the world will not end at this affront to the literary cannon and, after another drink, I don’t seem to care as much because now I’m passed-out on the sofa, or yelling “Ralph” into the thunder-mug, or trying to pick up the mailman. (“Hey big boy, you sure look good in blue…”)
That’s how I handle it; other authors may have different methods.
The thing is, it hurts. It hurts like a good whack in the testicles or giving birth to a bigheaded baby.
I want my darlings left alone. The thought of them disappearing into the universal editorial maw is agonizing. My pretty words obliterated, after all that fretting and lost sleep, and, well, dancing. Seriously, I’d rather donate a kidney to a to a gun lobbyist.
Once I struggled over a single word for nearly a month and a half. I just couldn’t get it right. One early option was ‘surreal’, but that didn’t sing to me. Later, it morphed into ‘cubist’, but again not quite the right sentiment. I finally landed on ‘Picassoesque’. Even writing it now gives me goose bumps. Lovely sound isn’t it? It was lovely in context too. I fell for that word. I sang songs to that word. If I could, I would have dated that word all through high school and taken it to the senior prom.
So you can imagine my horror when the manuscript came back sans my darling ‘Picassoesque’. I sunk into a funk so deep even copious amounts of self-flagellation couldn’t pull me out of my doldrums. I was devastated.
Now some of you may be asking yourself what’s all the fuss over one little word. But ponder this if you will. What if Edward Bulwer-Lytton had written, “The pen is mightier than the butter-knife”, or John Donne had coined the phrase, “No ham is a island.” or Dorothy had muttered, ‘There’s no place like Akron” – see, one little word does make a difference.
So for all the killer editors out there, and you know who you are, this rant is for you. Authors can be spiteful and petty and as a class we are not above peeing on the petunias. So please tread lightly when you murder our darlings (or someone might just make a late night run through your garden.)