Killing Babies

As one develops as a writer, one becomes aware of the painful reality that not everything one writes, no matter how well-crafted or heartfelt, will see the light of day. In many cases, favorite phrases or passages must be sacrificed for the overall good of the piece. Improving the quality of the writing doesn’t make excising them any easier though. In some ways, the process is akin to killing a well-loved child.

A writer has just crafted the perfect paragraph, one that beautifully sums up the character and situation, all the while being witty, insightful, and concise and try as one might, it can’t be worked into the context of the story in progress. I once crafted this opening paragraph:

Aaron Slaughter was appropriately named. He was born bad and grew up mean and never did a kind turn for anyone, from the moment the doctor slapped him on the butt to the day they strapped him in the electric chair and put forty thousand volts through him. I was there that day, and while I’m not normally the sort of person to enjoy watching another human being die, I made an exception in Aaron’s case. See, I’m the man who put him there.

As happy as I am with the paragraph, I have never found a use for it in anything I’ve written.

What’s worse than being unable to use good material is having to remove it after fitting it into a work. Editing is actually where the real work of writing begins. Few writers are able to set words onto paper exactly the way they will eventually be finalized. I tend to be an organic writer and once I get into a work, the words flow with no rhyme or reason. Editing is crucial to my process, because when I’m writing, my only concern is getting the thoughts into words. As the work grows, a pattern begins to emerge and I can start rearranging paragraphs, adding and deleting lines until the piece says what I want in the way I want it said. Along the way, lots of favorite lines and phrases get cast aside.

Removing material does not mean the material is bad, just as rejection of a manuscript or play doesn’t mean the writing is lousy. It simply means the material does not work with the piece as a whole. I wrote an entire section for my novel The Long-Timers in which the main character was brought before the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, which did not make it into the finished work. When I reworked the novel into A Tale of Two Sisters, however, I found a place for the material again. Oftentimes, material that doesn’t fit in one work, may be just what’s lacking in another.

As writers, we learn to maintain journals or files of ideas and phrases which may someday make it into a story or play. Carrying around miniature computers in our pockets makes this task easier. I like to retain text files of everything I remove from a story or play, since I may find a use for it somewhere else, and since Acrobat allows for editing marks, I’m now able to preserve drafts of works in progress. In some cases, I’ve taken bits and pieces of excised material to fill out or enhance a different work, or borrowed scenes from one play to use in another.

Still, cutting scenes or paragraphs from a work isn’t easy. “They’re my babies,” a writer might say. “I can’t kill them!” If one is to evolve as a writer, however, it’s a skill one must master. At one time, a publisher would pair an author with an editor who would take on the harsh process of excising passages, but with independent authors publishing their own work, a professional editor is often a luxury one simply cannot afford. It becomes the writer’s responsibility to make the necessary cuts.

Obviously, no one will be seriously harmed if a novel, story, or play is a few hundred words shorter than the author initially conceived it. The goal is always to convey the most ideas with the fewest words. As authors, we must continually strive to improve the craft and say what we mean as succinctly as possible, even if it means killing a few of our babies.