Rescue your Darlings by Kenji Crosland

This post is part of the Guest Post Giveaway at the blog Unready and Willing. If you think articles about writing or personal development (or personal development for writers) sounds like a good fit for your blog, please take a look at the Guest Post Giveaway page and see if any of the articles spark your interest.

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 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?

Why the Client is Always Right

Anyone who’s worked in retail knows the adage, “The customer is always right.” That credo often makes retail workers cringe. I’ve worked in several bookstores and most people wouldn’t believe the customers we had to accept as being “right.”

I can cite hundreds of examples of abused return policies, mis-read signage where the customer received a discount anyway, and complaints where the customer was clearly wrong, but the manager made right. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

The policy is not an excuse to act as a doormat, but it provides a good guideline for knowing when to cut your losses. In other words, is the bad PR worth the money we’ll save by not making the customer happy?

The words “bad PR” make me think of the recent Southwest / Kevin Smith debacle. Director Kevin Smith was kicked off a plane for being “too heavy”, and escorted out of a seat he clearly fit in. He was right; Southwest was wrong. But even if it was a close call — even if he had to struggle to get that armrest down — Southwest would have been smart to let it pass. Smith had been a passenger on the airlines countless times previously, flying with no danger to himself, the other passengers, or the plane as a whole. Southwest, known as the friendly airlines, has spent years and millions of marketing dollars building a good reputation for itself. Was it really worth it not to let Kevin Smith — a customer with a powerful voice and a lot of social networking cache — just be right?

For Freelancers, Clients = Customers

When you are a freelance writer, your clients are your customers. What are some instances in which the client is “right”, even if it may not seem like it?

  • When the editor changes your work in a way you may not approve of, but it is still factually and grammatically correct. Every editor has his own style, and publications typically fit the editor’s style. If the editor changes something, and it’s not how you would have written it, leave it alone. If you want to know the rationale, ask politely. But don’t argue.
  • When the client changes his mind about what he wants, and expects you to do more work as a result. Unless it’s specifically written into your contract (and you should have one for this reason) that you charge for re-writes, you should do the work. The client will appreciate that you went the extra mile, and you’ll get return work. If the client makes a habit of changing his mind after the fact, you may want to consider ending the relationship.
  • When you write to the client’s specifications, but the client just isn’t happy. I know a lot of writers disagree with me on this point, but I like to use this analogy: If I go to a hairdresser and I leave looking like Ronald McDonald, the hairdresser better fix it — for free. If I take my car to a mechanic and it’s not running well when I leave, I want him to make it right — at no charge. Doctors are probably the only professionals who can get away with not doing their job correctly the first time and then charge for repeat visits… but writers don’t have to live in fear of malpractice lawsuits, either.

Contracts Make it Clear
Again, the policy that the customer is always right isn’t designed to force professionals to act like doormats. Having a contract that clearly outlines what you will and won’t do for the given fee prevents misunderstandings, endless re-writes and wasted time. A contract helps ensure the client receives exactly what he paid for.

I don’t charge for rewrites and, in rare cases when a client is not happy, I will re-visit my work until it meets their specifications. I have many repeat clients, including editors I’ve worked with for more than 15 years.

If endless rewrites or complaints become a problem, I simply stop working for the client or publication. .. and I can count on one hand the number of times that has happened. In some cases, because clients know I will rewrite with a smile, whatever the circumstances, they offer to pay me for the additional work. Again, everyone is happy.

As writers, we are service professionals. The number one goal of a service professional is to provide good customer service. That’s at the heart of the “client is always right” philosophy.

What are some instances in which you’ve accepted a client being “right” because it wasn’t going to hurt you, even if you didn’t agree? When have you had to put your foot down?

Writing, Romance, and Child-Rearing: A Critical Balance

by Melissa Hart

Ten years ago, when I began writing short humorous essays in earnest, I received a phone call from an editor at Woman’s Day. I’d sent her an 800-word piece about how my great-aunts purchased the front of a crazy-quilt at a thrift store, sewed a velvet backing on it and proceeded to exhibit it at county fairs, winning blue ribbons and cash prizes for a handicraft they’d contributed to only marginally. The New York editor struck me as elegantly brusque. “We’d like to publish your essay,” she said. “Will two thousand be acceptable?”

“Words?” I asked, already considering how to lengthen the piece.

She sighed with the world-weary patience of Manhattan confronting a country-mouse. “Dollars,” she said.

Thus I realized that an essay–penned in an hour over a mocha at my favorite coffeehouse and then revised in another hour a week later–could earn me a month’s income. Since then, I’ve sold short humorous essays to The Washington Post, The Advocate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, High Country News, and numerous other publications in a process that requires a quick burst of focused energy, a dedication to equally swift and relentless revision, and an understanding of the numerous magazines and newspapers that publish this genre.

But a few years ago, when my husband and I decided to adopt a toddler, I believed my writing career was over. I didn’t know how I could possibly concentrate while learning to care for a child. Finances mandated my continued work as a journalism teacher at the University of Oregon and a memoir teacher for U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program. Deeply in love with my husband, I wanted to remain devoted to hiking and traveling with him and our new daughter.

“There’s just no time to write!”

I wailed this to our long-suffering counselor at Eugene’s Artists’ Counseling Service. Peggy merely laughed and took out her giant pad of paper and a purple pen. “We’re going to break down each day into chunks,” she told my husband and me, pre-adoption. “You’ll see that Melissa gets several blocks of time each week to write, and Jonathan gets the same amount to devote to his photography.”

In theory, she was right. We looked at her seven-column grid and saw how we might structure each day so that we could spend time with our daughter, time with each other, write and/or photograph for a reasonable number of hours, and retain our day jobs. In actuality, once our daughter came home, I cringed at the thought of leaving her, even for two hours, to engage in something as indulgent as writing essays.

“Love, it’s your work.” My husband handed me my notebook. “Go get a mocha. All you have to do is produce a rough draft.”

I knew he was right. Reluctantly, I walked down to my favorite coffeehouse and sat there for an hour, staring dismally at the blank pages. I returned home an hour early. “Performance anxiety,” I explained.

After several false starts, I did begin to find my rhythm as a writer and mother, thanks to my practice in writing short essays. Now, I can whip out a rough draft between university classes. If I wake early, I sit up in bed and reach for my notebook and pen. If my daughter’s at preschool and I find myself inspired by a current event or trend or family memory, I sit down at the computer even if I have a stack of papers to grade, bills to pay, and the kitchen floor to mop.

I’m learning to view the chapters of my memoir-in-progress in the same manner as I approach short essays; I just have to remember that the chapters, longer and sometimes more literary, require multiple revisions.

These days, I receive enough editorial acceptance to keep up my confidence. But money earned from my essays and memoir represents a secondary reward. My husband is right–writing is my work, and I love the process of crafting essays and books almost as much as I adore my family.

It’s difficult to juggle my roles as wife and mother, teacher and writer. Sometimes, I collapse in exhaustion. I tell myself during those down-times that I could let the writing go . . . but then what would I be teaching my daughter?

Early Sunday mornings, she pads out to the living room to find me bent over my computer, much as my mother used to bend over the short stories composed on an electric typewriter. I hope that the sight of me writing–even if the dishes sit unwashed and the windows need scrubbing–will inspire my daughter to dedicate herself to a passion that, along with beloved family members and friends, makes life worth living.

Melissa Hart is a journalism teacher at the University of Oregon, and a memoir writing teacher for U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program. Her new memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal Press, 2009), is a coming-of-age story about growing up white, heterosexual and boring in multicultural Los Angeles with a lesbian mom, a brother with Down syndrome, and a deep desire to be a Latina.

The Oregonian notes, “Hart, who teaches writing at the University of Oregon, has crafted a well-balanced tale that forgoes blame in favor of poignancy.”

Booklist says, ” “LGBT families and immigrant kids will want it for the honesty, humor, and love. Every lively chapter ends with a detailed recipe that mixes food and feelings.”

Kirkus Reviews says of Gringa, “”The book is filled with detailed conversations and particulars of dress, mannerisms and facial expressions that give it the feeling of a novel. A quirky narrative of artfully reconstructed memories.”