Thursday, March 3, 2011

Butchering Your Darling

By Jaden Terrell

I recently had to do some edits for the publisher who is doing the German translation of my first two Jared McKean mysteries. The edits were for the first book (which had already been fairly extensively edited) and involved a subplot that I felt was integral to the development of my character and also for laying the groundwork for the second book. At first, it sounded like they wanted the entire sub-plot cut. Awhile later, thank goodness, I got the email laying out several options, none of which were as draconian as I had first feared. They all, however, involved cutting out some things I'd grown pretty fond of.

Who was it who said that, when editing, you have to kill your darlings? Anybody? That author was talking about those sections that seem like "especially fine writing." Here, I'm talking about the book itself. So what do you do when your editor asks you to butcher your darling?For me, there's a process not entirely unlike the seven stages of grief.

First Stage: Panic and Resistance, Cleverly Concealed

You don't want to come across to your publisher as someone who is belligerent, difficult to work with, and who thinks his or her every word is plated in platinum, so you speak calmly and ask reasonable questions designed to discover the extent of the butchery required and see if the darling seems likely to survive it. How extensive is this change expected to be? What exactly is expected? The mind is racing. What can I salvage? How can I do this if I lose that? Aloud you say, "Hmm. I hadn't thought of that. Let me see what I can do...Of course, of course. I'll work on it and get back to you. By when, did you say?"

Second Stage: Panic and Resistance, Shared with Trusted Friends and Advisers.

In some circles, this might be known as whining. Keep it good-natured and don't go overboard with it, and your writer friends will give you the sympathy you deserve ("What? Are they crazy? That was my favorite part!") followed by some constructive suggestions about how to perform the butchery with the least amount of heartache. My go-to people were my critique group (thank you, Chester) and my agent (thank you, Jill), who asked me the question that saved the day: "What is absolutely no-compromise? What are the things you absolutely can't live without?"

Third Stage: Eat Chocolate.

Everyone knows a writer about to engage in plot butchery needs sustenance and comfort. If chocolate doesn't do it for you (what's wrong with you?!), try macaroni and cheese--or putting glow-in-the-dark stars on your ceiling, or covering the wall behind your computer with glittery stickers of unicorns or racing cars. Whatever makes you happy.

Fourth Stage: Get to work.

In my case, I tried the publisher's first two suggestions (A, cut the subplot completely, B, have another character settle it offstage), but the story didn't feel complete. I worked the story and re-worked it. Keeping my agents question in mind, I cut the parts that I could live without (no matter how much I liked them). I settled on the publisher's third suggestion (keep the subplot but combine scenes and cut as much of it as possible) but was able to incorporate parts of the second into it by having a secondary character do some of the legwork.

Fifth Stage: Acceptance, and--dare I say it?--Pride in the Outcome

Hmm. This is...not bad. It's kind of like realizing your perfect baby has an extra toe you hadn't noticed. And...what's that? A blotchy birthmark you somehow missed. Somehow it feels less like butchery and more like surgery. You look back over it and realize that, while you miss some of the things you cut (after all, that birthmark shaped like the Statue of Liberty was kind of cool, wasn't it?), the book as a whole is much stronger.

I sent the revised version to my agent and to the publisher. Both were pleased with the result, and the best part was that even the suggestions that didn't work on their own helped me find the one that did. I tell myself that next time I'll remember this experience and skip straight Stage 4, but somehow I know where I'll find myself. Right back at Stage 1.

How about the rest of you? Any adventures in editing to share?

5 comments:

Jean Henry Mead said...

Congrats on your German translation, Beth. I'm reminded of an interview with Louis L'Amour, who said that Bantam told him to cut 1,500 words from his first novel. He said, "Ah, baloney, I can't do that." He finally consented and said when he read the printed copy, he didn't even miss those "darlings" that had been cut.

Jaden Terrell said...

Jean, I know what he meant. There are a few things I miss, but they weren't really necessary. Oddly, the hardest part has been revising the catalog copy to account for the change. I LOVED the part of the catalog copy that I have to cut. I think it was the most interesting part of the copy. (sigh)

Lemur said...

I go through this with my writing buddies on regular occasion. My advice, make the suggested edits, let it sit a week then reread. (Keep a copy of the original, just in case!)

As you've found, sometimes doing some chopping actually makes your work better.

Congrats on the translation!

The CRITTER Project and Naked Without A Pen

Jaden Terrell said...

Thank you, Jean and Lemur. (And may say, Lemur, that I love your profile picture.)

Yes, keeping a copy of the original version is so important. I wish I'd thought to put that in the post, but thank you for reminding us. You can try out any change without worrying about it, because if you don't like it, you always have the other version.

I've been fortunate. Neither my agent nor publisher has ever asked for an edit that didn't ultimately make the book better. Knock on wood.

Ben Small said...

I hate doing it, but it must be done. I've agonized over this, but figure the editor is mostly right. Still, it's painful.