This morning the rain – and snow – stopped here in the Green Mountains, the sun came out, and I was finally able to mow the shaggy lawn and begin the arduous spring ritual of uncluttering my life. While this is one of those ongoing projects which I likely won’t finish until the next millennium (I come from a family of long-lived optimists), it is something I mirror in a more manageable way when I sit down to edit and rewrite.
Which is what I am doing right now to a short story I wrote four years ago. It was ok at the time, but I always thought there was something that didn’t quite work. Or could work better. At the time the need to pen two books intervened, but now, up against a block on my chinchilla novel, there’s no better time to dust it off and spruce it up.
I was timid, at first. Moving a comma here and there, making sure the prose was active and clean; after all, we can learn and improve a lot in four years. But that lingering sense of wrong remained.
Time to resurrect that oft-quoted (dare I say clichéd?) bit of Faulknerian advice: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” This is actually a variation on the words of another Oxfordian – thought from England, not Mississippi – Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who said, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” It was more recently echoed by Stephen King in his splendid book, On Writing, with distinctive King flair: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Now, this can either be excruciating or liberating or, for those of us with a perverse appreciation for carnage, great fun. But before you get down to the business of literary homicide, start by going through and removing anything that seems like clutter. From clutzy phrase to extraneous scene, even that colorful character you so fell in love with but who really belongs in a story all her own, snip them out. Fill the wastebasket (with paper or bits); or file them away for later use, perhaps random inspiration.
If this doesn’t fix things, it should at least make it easier to see those darlings begging for a swift execution. It doesn’t matter how eloquent or heart-rending the prose, nor how many days you slaved over a paragraph (Oscar Wilde once quipped, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”). Be willing to look with an objective eye to the whole. If something doesn’t work, kill it. You can always play necromancer later, if you must.
I’m still working on my story, deconstructing, reconstructing. But the old clutter is gone, the old darlings dead and buried. Tomorrow I’ll deal with the new ones.
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