A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Authors often tweet or post about the number of words they’ve written in a day, or how they’ve finished the first draft of a book. There’s far less mention of the dark and evil revision process that comes after the first draft is complete. This doesn’t just involve obsessively polishing sentences, but something far more brutal. People describe it as killing your darlings.
That phrase doesn’t just mean deciding to kill a character, or remove one from the book entirely, though that can happen. It also means ruthlessly throwing away anything from a page of elegant description, to whole chapters. There’s a sharpening of knives, torrents of blood, and the anguished screaming of the author as weeks and months of hard work vanish in a single second.
Authors don’t throw away pages and pages of their own work lightly. They do it because they want to make their book as good as possible. Obviously weak sections need to be either removed or strengthened, but there are lots of reasons why an author may cut pieces of their best writing as well. A scene that doesn’t progress the plot or develop the characters may need to be removed as an irrelevant digression. A lovingly written description of a character buying spices, with evocative paragraphs about the mingled scents filling the air, may be perfect for some books but have to be callously trimmed from a thriller where characters only have hours to save the world.
If I believe my book will be better without a scene, then I’ll instantly take an axe to it. I admit I probably find cutting scenes less painful than most authors. My first drafts of books tend to be too long, so I’m always eager to trim them down to size. My suffering at throwing away some much loved chapter is eased by the thought that the book is a few thousand words closer to my target length. Authors with the opposite problem, a first draft of a book that’s too short, must find it doubly hard to cut a scene.
Earth Flight, the final book in my Earth Girl trilogy, was a book where the first draft was vastly too long. I’ve written a previous blog piece called ‘Honey I Shrunk the Book’. That tells how I took an axe to Earth Flight, cut it down to size, and improved it in the process.
Now I’m in the same situation again. I finished a first draft of a book that’s far too long. I happily picked up my axe and went to work, enthusiastically looking for pages I could hack away to improve it.
Now I’ve finished that process, and the wretched book is still much too long. I’ve spent the last couple of days thinking about the situation. If I cut anything else then I won’t improve the book but damage it. I was worried about the length before I was halfway through writing it. I skipped a section of plot to keep it shorter. I pared the big end sequence down to the bare bones. If anything, a lot of scenes would benefit by being longer rather than shorter.
Every book is different. Cutting Earth Flight down to size made it better, but doing it to this one would make it worse. I’ve decided to go for a total change of plan, adding the plot sequence I skipped, and putting flesh on the bones of the end sequence.
This first draft is going to get longer not shorter. It isn’t going to be one book but two. There’s already an obvious point to make the end of book one, where the major plot sequence comes to a dramatic conclusion before something happens to trigger even more chaos.
Sometimes you don’t kill your darlings. Sometimes you just cut them in half.
Janet Edwards lives in England. As a child, she read everything she could get her hands on, including a huge amount of science fiction and fantasy. She studied Maths at Oxford, and went on to suffer years of writing unbearably complicated technical documents before deciding to write something that was fun for a change. She has a husband, a son, a lot of books, and an aversion to housework.