Robert A. Heinlein was so famous and well-respected in science fiction circles that he became like Albert Einstein or Noam Chomsky and was asked for his opinion on everything. Some of those opinions were about writing, which is why I’ve brought the subject up here. He said, ‘Never revise, except to editorial demand’. Jack Kerouac was also famous for saying, ‘First thought, best thought’, but while he might have famously written everything out on one spool of paper without interruptions, he was a planning maniac. His notebooks are crammed with very detailed information about what he was going to write once he sat down in front of the typewriter and paper roll and began to pound on the keys.
If you’re not as famous as Heinlein or Kerouac, you’ll probably want to revise your writing, or rather you’ll have to. Not necessarily to editorial demand, either. You may want to revise a story because you have thought of something better, to remove certain passages that may pique the ire of someone you’ve libelled, or, as is the case with one of mine at the moment, to get the thing in under the word limit.
In the course of this process, the popular advice is to “kill your darlings”. Is this good advice? What do you end up with if all the bits you like are revised out of the piece? You get the safe, bland literary fiction that creative writing courses thrive on. This is handy for being published because, despite what they say on their websites, fiction journals don’t want new and fresh stuff, they want what they’ve always had.
Let’s say you like your antagonist, who’s a financial advisor by day, but who becomes a wolf when the wofbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright, or the other way around. But, because you like the character, he’s the darling you have to kill, so you expunge him from your work in the course of revision. Does this make the story better, or has it completely killed off any narrative that was there in the first place?
So, I’m 800 words over the word limit of a university assignment at the moment, and I’m pruning away at it, making my sentences sharper, my images more poetic and obscure and losing whole scenes that are my darlings but, I have to admit, a smidge redundant. Fortunately, with a computer and software I’m cutting bits out and pasting them in a collection of fragments. Waste not, want not, as Heinlein or Kerouac or somebody said. My poor story, though, is a lot less recognisably mine than it was when it was 3400 words and counting, crammed to the gunwales with my live darlings. It’s been blanded by excision.
I say ‘excision’ because it was the first word that came into my head to describe cutting things out. I grant you that that’s what ‘excision’ means, but in the course of revision I’ve been advised (not by Heinlein or Kerouac, because I don’t have time for a séance) to use fewer big words. This is an example of the other cause for revision and the pain that brings — feedback.
Feedback is fun. Giving feedback makes you feel like you’re doing something. ‘Hooray, I’m helping!’ as our chairperson has said. Getting feedback can be a little more problematic. Because, once you’ve sifted out the bad feedback, the good feedback that can actually improve the piece is something you feel you’re obliged to take on board. I’ve had five pieces of feedback on the story I’m pruning at the moment, all of it good (even the advice to use smaller words) but I’m now at the point where editing and revising is making it more the feedbackers’ story than mine.
Back in the 90s I was beavering away at my first novel and putting chunks of it up for feedback in class. Thirty people, thirty opinions, and I was trying to revise the thing to satisfy everyone. That poor hodgepodge of a thousand files still takes up space on the hard drive, but whenever I get it out and have a peruse of it, I want to puke. Wild variations in style, content, even font, as I tried to satisfy a slab’s worth of opinions on the thing. So many dead darlings it resembled the site of a plane crash. May it never see the light of day.
It’s the regret I feel when something has to go. I’m keeping the deleted bits in other files, and of course I can go back to older versions of the story that I’ve saved if I want to, but it is killing my darlings, so it feels a bit like murder. I get ‘writer’s remorse’, I suppose.
That’s the end of the first draft of this – 781 words. Now to go back and see what I need to revise. Not to editorial demand, not because of feedback, not even to get under the word limit, but to make it that little bit more readable. I know you’re out there, Ballarat Reader, and I want to spare you all but my most cherished darlings, which I wrap in words of comfort.
D J Rout will never see thirty again, and has to squint at sixty, even though that’s looming really close. He took up writing to keep his hands warm in the frigid months, and if you’ve read this far you’re already in too deep.