In his iconic memoir on writing, Stephen King says, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
In my case, I haven’t just killed my darlings. I’ve conducted a bloodbath. A slaughter fest. A series of gory Halloween-style chainsaw moments that would make even Stephen King cover his clever eyes. And it was all to make my editor happy before she ever saw the book.
I’ve had to do this sort of thing before. My new novel, Haven Lake (April 2015) landed on my editor’s desk at 498 pages. When I told her how long it was before I sent it, she groaned and winced. (I had to imagine the wincing, since we were on the phone, but maybe she was frothing at the mouth.)
“Well,” she sighed at last, “we’ll do our best to trim it down.”
Haven Lake has two primary settings–the Berkshires and the Massachusetts North Shore –and features three different points of view, two mysterious deaths and Vietnam as a backdrop. Trimming was done painstakingly by both of us, sentence-by-sentence.
With my new work-in-progress, Chance Harbor, I tackled three points of view and three settings—Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton and Massachusetts. This book, like my others, is an emotional family mystery, but even I didn’t correctly foresee how many skeletons would come tumbling out of the closets until they clonked me on the head. And I wrote the synopsis!
When I finished the manuscript for Chance Harbor two weeks ago, it was 599 pages long and weighed more than my Pekingese. I called the editor in a panic to convey the bad news.
There was a long pause. I imagine she was counting to ten. Or maybe 599. Then she said, “Give it to me at 499 pages and I’ll read it.”
The book was due in a week. I had no recourse but to hole up in one of my favorite writing retreats—a cheap rented condo on the icy coast of Maine—and bring out my machete. I couldn’t imagine how to begin at first, since I loved every scene and character and sentence in the book. Gradually, though, I began spotting things I could jettison.
Maybe it was my steady diet of frozen chicken pot pie and wine. Or the fact that it was too cold to venture outside, even to the gym across the street. At any rate, I managed to whittle the book down to 480 pages in three days. In doing so, here’s what I learned about the art of murder by red pen:
- Look at flashbacks first. Do you really need them all? Your characters are revealing things through dialogue and action, so you probably don’t need all that back story. Be parsimonious in your explanations and let your characters do the work.
- Next, cut scenes. You don’t need to move characters in a linear way from one place to another. For instance, I discovered a scene where my character was driving here, then there, then stopped for dinner, drove some more, then finally arrived at her destination. In cutting, I went from her start point to her end point, with only one sentence between.
- Ditch as many useless “he said,” “she said” identifiers that you can, if it’s obvious who’s speaking in dialogue scenes.
- If you describe a character’s hair color or manner of speech once in a book, for the love of literature, don’t keep repeating that. Think of something original or don’t describe the character physically at all.
- Eliminate descriptions of emotion unless they’re original, too. Minimize off-the-shelf phrases like “she shuddered” or “his forehead broke out in a sweat.” You can probably convey your characters’ emotions through their actions and dialogue.
- Many, many chapters (and even entire books) start in the wrong place. Look at every chapter and find a more exciting place to start it—like in the middle of an action scene, where a character is just picking himself up after a bar fight, or when there’s a knock on the door.
Now take out your machete, sharpen the blade and start slashing! Just watch out for your shins.