Less is More: Knowing which passages to cut

You’ve heard Faulkner say “you must kill all your darlings” and Stephen King say “it’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own”, so how does this help you when it comes time to get out the red pen?

Camilla Gibb, award-winning author of Mouthing the Words and The Beauty of Humanity Movementrecently told the CBC about the harshest thing an editor ever said to her: “‘It’s not the reader’s job to indulge you, Camilla.’ She was specifically referring to a chapter of a manuscript that I had enjoyed writing more than any other chapter. Yowza. Joy killer. And yet, it was probably also the wisest thing an editor ever said.”

When you love a passage or a chapter too much, it shows. It might stick out because it demonstrates a POV that we don’t need, it might introduce new themes that don’t fit in, and however beautifully written the passage is–and the darlings usually are–it needs to be cut.

You’ll know it’s a darling if:

  • Your agent or editor suggests cutting it and you find yourself resisting on no apparent grounds.
  • It is overwritten with metaphors.
  • It is telling not showing.
  • It is your favourite turn of phrase, but beta readers don’t find it memorable.
  • It feels indulgent.
  • Your gut is telling you something. You might mistake for a darling, but it’s usually an obtrusive passage.

Are you defending your darlings because you are stubborn or because you think they have merit? If it’s the former, this business is full of collaboration, especially when writing in isolation is over, so learning to communicate properly through the editing process and being able to evaluate your own emotions (and often check them at the door) is essential to being an author editors want to work with.

Edits are there for author approval, as it is your work, but as an agent I can only strongly advise where to cut.

Keeping a ‘darling’ can slow pace, take readers in a different direction and ultimately confuse them about the intentions of the book. Less is more. It isn’t the reader’s job to read around your darlings, it’s the reader’s job to have a meaningful reading experience.

Further Reading:

Do you know where to start your novel?

Should you have a prologue?

(Image via kyungduk kim)

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3 thoughts on “Less is More: Knowing which passages to cut

  1. I agree with these comments. My two pennies’ worth is that perhaps this is due to much of writers’ experience and knowledge being gained outside of learning environments (egos aren’t much help either). At first, it’s not easy to put someone else’s proven track record as a reader in front of your own hard labour as a creator, but in the long run it’s worth it. Once you accept that people are trying to help you, things move along at a faster and more professional pace.

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    • Absolutely. A manuscript is your creation and letting someone critique it is a very vulnerable process. And you’re exactly right, having a team around you that wants the best for you will lead to engaging discussions about the progress of your novel and help in the revision stages.

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  2. Pingback: Wait before you hit send. Are those revisions really ready? « Carly Watters, Literary Agent Blog

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