Off with the darling's head!

Updated: Jul 20

The art of writing a good novel is not in telling the story, it is in the revisions. Stated more plainly, a story does not make a book well-written, revisions do. If other writers have not already penned this truism, I can guarantee they’ve thought it.

I once talked with someone who told me they wrote a book from start to finish without one single revision. No doubt the man believed in his work, but I'm quite sure the book begged for substantial editing.

Becoming a good writer doesn’t come with talent alone. Like so many life-pursuits, it is the result of practice and thousands of hours of hard work. Revision and editing are part and parcel of the craft of writing whether poetry, short story, full-length novel, or blog post. Steven King has a saying which applies here: “Kill your darlings.” I’ve found his simple advice incredibly useful when I really love something I’ve written but know it doesn’t do a dang thing to move the story forward. Under this admonition, I remove the offender of all things bright and beautiful. Cut copy goes into a separate document in hopes that I might later find something useful in the graveyard of trifle. Usually, it stays quite happily buried.

I write this as I’m revising TWO SIDES OF ONE ROAD, the sequel to THE RISING ROAD which is making the rounds of publishers like a lonesome puppy waiting for someone to rescue it from the pound. My time table said it was taking such a very long time for anything to happen. I found out recently it’s not uncommon for a manuscript to take over a year to find a publisher willing to take on the project. ARGH! My amazing agent, Lauren Miller, patiently holds my hand through the agony.

I suppose the long wait for publication (if at all) is why so many authors resort to self-publication. Self-publishing can work depending on the author's ability and dedication to the craft, but too often the results are, er, squishy. I’m currently reading one of those self-published novels. It badly needs revision. Consider the following:

After going for a long walk, I found I could think.

Once I saw the man’s disheveled appearance, I decided to leave.

Having taken the shortcut, he arrived first.

(These are not from the book, by the way. I made them up to illustrate the point.)

There’s nothing wrong with the sentences per se, but when reading paragraphs that unvaryingly start with -ing words or words like 'after', 'once' and 'because', the reader becomes annoyed rather than staying fully engaged with the story. The rhythm is destroyed. Poor writing often gets in the way of a good story.

This is why good writing can be so difficult and great writing a rarity. I had no idea how difficult until I undertook 92,000 (plus) word projects. I have a new appreciation for master novelists who can lift me into their world and make me see things I’ve never before seen. I now find myself picking apart the work of others. I zero in on things that might not have bothered me in the past or that I didn't understand why they bothered me. I even mentally change sentences in books I'm reading to make them better. Sad, but true.

The picture attached to this blog post was a drawing I did in jest at the end of a story board project. It’s pretty much how I feel when I'm on my umpteeth revision of a writing project. It's maddening. Just when I think it’s good, I find things that don't make sense. Over and over I look for inconsistencies and poor wording, even whole paragraphs that aren’t needed. I kill my darlings, one by one.

So onward I go, chopping and changing copy, hoping the end product will be worth the effort.


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