Killing My Darlings

As many of you are aware, I’ve written a full, young adult, Sci-Fi adventure, called SubAqua. Technically, I wrote it in November of 2014 during the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) event. I wasn’t registered for the event, but who cares? I did it anyway. Long story short, I have beaten this manuscript to death. I probably have about a dozen distinctly different drafts, and even more first chapters. I had a critique of my first ten pages from a professional literary agent, and although it was generally positive, I still (as always) had some work to do. So, I did it. It took me about six months, but I finally got through the whole manuscript, which now sits at just under 87,000 words.

I’ve submitted to around 15 agents, and entered the manuscript into #PitchWars, which is a Twitter event designed to hook up writers and mentors, and eventually agents. I submitted to an additional six mentors. I’ve not had any requests for additional pages. As an aside, my new goal is to get someone to ask for page 11, as almost everyone wants the first 10 pages of a manuscript for submissions. (Mine will go to eleven. Get it? Spinal Tap? Anyone?) I’ve been given some good feedback and positive comments, but I also get comments like, “I couldn’t get fully absorbed in the story.” So in my mind . . . let’s fix those ten pages. In Stephen King’s book, “On Writing,” this is what he calls killing your darlings—all those words you worked so hard to get right.

I recently read my first ten pages to some new critique partners, and was advised to rethink where I started my manuscript. I’ve tried this before and absolutely hated . . . HATED . . . what I’d done to my story. This time, I was advised to start with the actual explosion rather than the aftermath (I know this is kinda cryptic), and I was having trouble putting the story together from that point. But, I thought about it overnight. I thought about it while trying to sleep. I came up with a plan.

So, I dragged my laptop into my basement writing lair, fired up the Keurig, put on a “Coffee Shop” soundtrack (Yep, that’s a real thing), and stared at the screen. Damn you, fingers! And then, I got some words to come out. It started to gel, and I wrote about six completely new pages to start my story from where my critique partners thought it should start. I split the previous first chapter into two, and rewrote parts of that. I found a great new place for chapter breaks, and I even found a “better motivation” for why my protagonist is getting drawn into the story in the first place. All this rewriting stuff has happened today, so I’m sure I have a really “Shitty First Draft” (as it is commonly known) of the first couple of chapters.

But the result of all this was that I was fired up about my manuscript today. It’s hard to stay excited about anything after thirteen revisions, but today, I was all pumped up about tearing holes in (a copy of) my manuscript. I want to share two relevant quotes:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” —Thomas Edison

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” ― Thomas Edison

I’m not giving up on this until you see a hard cover book with my name on it on the shelves of your local Target.

Revising – The Hardest Part of Writing

It has taken me close to two weeks (closer to three, but adjusted for the holidays) to get to this point, but I am satisfied with my first chapter. What helped it the most was just deleting the damned thing. I had received some advice to add a new first chapter to SubAqua to help introduce my protagonist, give the reader a sense of what he’s all about, and define the world he’s living in, which by the way, is a really cool, underwater city known as Aquataine. That was good advice. But, after making numerous revisions, and changing the order of things, and shortening it, and lengthening it, and using different phrases. . . I just hated it. It’s gone.

Stephen King in “On Writing” calls this murdering your darlings, but I’ve never liked this chapter enough to call it a darling. You see, even boring information can be written well. The first chapter of an action/adventure novel should not read like an Ikea instruction manual. In other words, it should not suck, even by accident.

But that meant that I had to do all that introducing stuff somewhere else in my manuscript, and I’m happy to say that I found a way to work most of those details into my original first chapter. That allowed me to open with action (like I wanted to), and still introduce Phelan’s character and his world by showing his reactions to that action. I think it really works, and I hope when I’m finished with the other 25 chapters, that I feel this satisfied with them too.

There were a few other steps involved in getting to this point, too. Take adverbs, for example. A way to find adverbs in your writing is to search for “ly,” since many adverbs end in ly. I searched for “ly “ (there’s a space there), “ly,” (comma), and “ly.” (period). I had 833 ly’s in roughly 84,000 words. I reduced them by 45 percent. But wait just a second. Some of the adverbs can stay in a few examples, like probably, possibly, only, and a couple of reallys, especially since most of these are in dialogue, whether spoken or in my protagonist’s inner voice. I kept some of the adverbs like quickly, suddenly, and calmly. Sometimes, especially in the dialogue, these words just work better than saying something like, “He walked with the speed of a hungry cheetah, stalking his prey.” Maybe it’s not a crucial detail for the story, but I still want you to know that “he walked quickly.” I’m happy with the 50 or so actual adverbs I’ve left in. I like Grammar Girl’s site on Eliminating Adverbs for advice on this one.

Exclamation points are another sore spot. I went from 244 to 94. I killed 150 of them! I found killing these suckers to be a bit easier than the adverbs, but there is some really good guidance on the web, and I want to highlight the one site I found most useful. So I will. Here: Too Many Exclamation Points! is K.M. Weiland’s posting on most common writing mistakes. She says it’s okay to use an exclamation point when your characters are raising their voices (which mine seem to do a lot). I agree with her, but I still trimmed as many as I could. I found that I overdid it in a couple of spots. A little. Sometimes.

I research the crap out of this stuff, and I’ve decided that I have to read ten posts on whatever subject is at hand, in this case, adverbs and exclamation points. I found a great article on showing versus telling, but did I bookmark that one? Nope. But never mind. . . Of the ten posts, five will make good points, and the other five will make “other” points. I’ll read about ten posts, and one of them will always come out on top. Is that authoritative? Heck no. But what is? Nothing. That’s what. Every rule gets broken.

Writing is hard work. Reading should be fun. As I tell my family, this book will be finished when you can pick up a hardcover book off the shelf at Target. Until then, write, rewrite, revise, repeat.