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You may be familiar with the phrase “Murder your Darlings.” This is the mantra repeated over and over again by teachers of the revision process. For many writers this is a painful ordeal that seems to take the life from a piece. Painful as it is, cutting out the parts that seem most precious to you is essential in polishing your work. Oftentimes when an editor will suggest that you cut a passage out of your story or novel, it’ll be one of your favorite sections–this is probably because you felt very good writing it. You were in the flow, and everything that fell onto the page just “felt right” to you. And now this editor wants you to cut it? To trash it as though it never existed? How could they be so cruel?
Is this the part of the writing process that you hate the most? Do hate the feeling that the passages that you had had so much pleasure writing will not see the light of day? I certainly did when I started out writing, but there are good reasons for cutting the fat. Although certain passages are beautifully written, they may do nothing to contribute to a story’s plot or give any insight to the characters. Exchanges of dialogue, though clever, may not really be important at all. The character that you snuck into chapter three was forced into the story just because you thought he or she was interesting. Lost in the flow of your writing, you might have spent two paragraphs describing a horse-carriage and not even know it. These passages simply don’t belong.
Instead of getting out your ax and murdering your darlings right then and there, however, why not consider dropping them off at the orphanage so that another story might be able to pick them up? Essentially you can create a database of written material that just didn’t make the cut for your other stories. Not only does this take some of the pain out of revision, but it also can give you a place to access characters, descriptions, and clever turns of phrases that simply didn’t fit in your other work. Whenever you feel writer’s block coming on, you can infuse some of the good stuff you didn’t use from your previous work into your new one.
To establish this orphanage, create a folder on your computer for your rescued darlings and then make sub-folders with names like “characters,” “descriptions,” “dialogues,” “settings,” and so on. Every time you cut a substantial part from your story, copy it and paste into a new document. Title the document in a way that you’ll be able to recognize it easily when you come back to it. Your “settings” folder would have documents titled “Roadside Cafe,” “African Village” and so on. The “Characters” folder could have documents with the character names, or just a short description like: “Nerdy Mobster” or, “Obsessive-Compulsive Stockbroker.”
Personally I find that I tend not to use too many of my rescued darlings in my new work. It’s comforting, however, to know that they’ll always be there waiting should you ever need them.
Kenji Crosland is a creative writing major who, scared of becoming a starving artist, became a corporate headhunter in Tokyo. Since then he’s regained his sanity, quit his job, and now blogs about creating an ideal career at unreadyandwilling.com. He is also developing a web application that just might change the internet. Follow him on Twitter: @KenjiCrosland.
Have you ever cut a part of your story that you really wished you’d kept? What do you do with the darlings you cut? Have you used a character or scene that didn’t make the cut in one story for another? What kinds of safety nets do you use when editing and revising your work?