License to Kill (Your Darlings)

Psycho-1-1140x475.jpgBeing a good writer is any author’s goal. You struggle over every word, wanting every scene, every description to be as close to perfection as humanly possible. But, in today’s writing market, whether you are seeking out traditional publishing or doing it independently, you also have to be a fantastic editor. Beyond proofreading, you need to hone the skills that will help you recognize what’s working, what’s not, why it’s not and what you need to do. Basically, you have to be an assassin–one who is fully prepared to kill your darlings.

We already know that writing is all about the rewriting, but (and I can’t stress this enough) it is also about reading. Authors have to read their work with a hypercritical eye and go for the flow. Your story needs to read smoothly and clearly. You want the reader to breeze through the page, turn to the next and not want to put down your book until it’s done. And, sadly, that can mean deleting some of your best and most beloved assemblage of verbiage.

In screenwriting, every word on the page must drive the story forward. If not, it’s cut. If it’s a detail that’s not absolutely needed, it’s cut. No matter how good the scene might be, what emotion it might evoke, if it doesn’t drive the story forward…

Many screenwriters crave the freedom of literary fiction so they can have room for a bit of purple prose every now and then. To be a fiction writer means you get to create a style and voice, a full expression of yourself. It’s almost like having your cake and eating it, too. And it can be too easy for a writer to go off the rails, become self-indulgent with tangents and flowery descriptions, scenes that take the reader nowhere all because the words are pretty.

Don’t be that writer.

The last thing you want readers to do is roll their eyes while reading your work. You want those orbs riveted to your words, not wondering why they hell you made those choices and dragged them away from the story.

Respect the reader. Kill your darlings.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hard thing to do. Very hard. But it must be done. It’s the only way to improve your work and have a better chance at standing out in a quite crowded and competitive field. If you’re ready to do the dirty work, here’s how:

1.) READ YOUR WORK. Yes, it’s that simple and obvious–and, yes, I know I’ve said this before–but it is too often overlooked. You have to read your work and be brutally honest about what’s not working and why. Sometimes, it’s as simple as changing a single word, deleting a sentence, moving a paragraph or seeing that the writing repeats itself, requiring a rewrite of one section and the deletion of another. Et, voila! You’re sorted. {By the way, I realize I do beat this deceased horse, but I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I read that haven’t been thoroughly read by their authors. Don’t glimpse. Don’t glance. Read it. Thank you.}

2.) CUT/PASTE/SAVE. If you can’t bear to simply delete, a Kill Your Darlings Cheat Sheet might be the weapon you need. I have a “Cuts and Edits” doc for each of my manuscripts to serve as a Potter’s Field of sorts. Having a place to put your darlings helps the ego to know that the beautiful prose you’re about to prune isn’t being thrown away but merely preserved “just in case” you do want it. I’ll admit that very rarely will I ever retrieve something from that doc, but I still like to have it handy. It makes hard decisions easier.

3.) WRITE AROUND IT. If you are damned determined to keep that darling in, you are going to have to structure everything around it to make it properly fit. I don’t recommend this, but it is an option. Chances are, after you put all that effort into shoe-horning that darling in, you’ll see the negative effect it has on that chapter and end up deleting it down the road. Sometimes the best lessons have to be learned the hard way. Write around it if you must.

4.) BE RUTHLESS. Why not? After all, they’re just words, and there are plenty of those lying about. Don’t be ruthless out of frustration; do it because you are brave. If it doesn’t work, cut it. If it’s not needed, cut it. If it doesn’t move you, cut it. Better writing just might come from it.

This isn’t easy. Not if you love what you’re writing. But killing off as many darlings as possible is necessary. Look, if you’re writing solely for yourself, you can be as indulgent as you’d like. But, if you want to have people read your work–especially paying readers–you have to view what you’re writing from their perspective.

Be that writer.

The Importance of Editing Yourself

Red PenIt’s probably right after you press Post, Upload, Publish or Send that the myriad of flaws in your writing are discovered. Suddenly, reality sets in, clouds part and you can see clearly. No matter how many times you might have glanced at your work, you missed a few things. Maybe more than a few things. Embarrassing gaffs. Amateur errors. But now, it’s out there.

Sure, you might be able to send a revision (unless it’s a pitch or an email to your boss), but that’s just as awful Andrew McCarthy’s reshoot wig at the end of Pretty in Pink. It calls way too much attention and it ain’t fooling anybody. Better decisions should have been made before you believed you were done.

Now humiliated, you start to kick yourself, bang head on desk because HOW ON EARTH DID YOU MISS THAT?!? But you did. And now it’s done. You sent out shoddy work. You are human. But that holds little consolation.

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I am the first to admit I suck at proofreading my own work (no doubt you’ll find at least one or two errors here). Perhaps most writers suffer the same fate. Our brains know the writing so well, it inserts missing words, corrects typos, and makes our eyes cross as we read the words crafted. But that doesn’t mean we should skip the proofing and editing processes–entrusting someone else to do the dirty work for us, or rest assured that few will mind or notice. One must persevere–and, more importantly, break bad habits.

Whether you are writing a business email, a stodgy report or the opus of your soul, taking the time to really read your work is something that seems to be lacking. It’s understandable to a degree. We run at a very fast pace. We count on Spelling/Grammar Check to catch our mistakes. But, even after decades at it, those “tools” still stink. Even if you’re an author who has set aside fun money to save up for a professional edit, doing that hard work yourself is key. Good writing comes down to craft, patience and responsibility. And you want to come off as a good writer before you send your work to anyone.

Even (or especially) for something short (a business email or professional text message), one should always, ALWAYS proofread before pressing Send. Double-check to whom you are sending it while you’re at it; Autofill is as dangerous as Autocorrect is annoying. Not only that, shepherd your words. Do they flow? Is the message clear? Are you assuming the reader will know what you are referring to, or do you state it? Concise clarity is the goal. Get to the point and make it shine. Then, think how it will sound if you’d have to read it on the witness stand. You heard me. Long ago, I had a boss who would drill that in for all correspondence, not because anything untoward was afoot but because writing can easily be misconstrued if it’s not put into context. Clarify the context, don’t overstate, don’t offer more than required, stick to the facts, be polite and exhibit professional etiquette. This kind of writing will get you that raise.

Writers are often told to “kill your darlings”. Bloggers need to skip the filler. There’s nothing worse than reading a post and, two paragraphs in, realizing the writer is trying to achieve a word count. Most of us visit a blog to be informed or entertained; we don’t want our time wasted by repetition or attempts at being clever. Respect your reader. Skip the filler.

When conquering longer works, such as that opus of your soul, editing and proofreading become quite the bugger. This is where your mind can really play tricks on you, filling in the blanks or making your eyes cross. I recommend the “pay as you go” method of editing. Go back to the beginning every so often and give it another read-through. How is the flow? What can be omitted? What needs flourish? Catching errors and repetitions, fleshing out details and characters help keep you on track and can guide you back to your original intent if you find yourself wandering off the mark.

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Writing is all about the rewriting. I’ve been fortunate to work with several “young” writers (those just starting out, no matter what their age), and have attempted to drill that adage into them. The hope is to alleviate the frustration they feel when getting edits and notes. What’s always surprising is when I get the revision back, and more errors of the same nature are made. That’s when I ask, “Have you read this out loud?”

If you are writing a 200+ page book, you might have fallen off your seat thinking of taking the time to read your book aloud. But you should. At some point, you need to stop being the writer and put yourself in the reader’s seat. How does it sound? How is the flow? Is that description clear? How is the plot developing? Is there still a plot? Keep in mind that not all readers consume a book in a few sittings. Many (like me) pick up and put down a book with long pauses (days, weeks) before returning to it because, as much as we enjoy the tome, we are super busy. Your writing should allow for that. Be generous to your readers in that way. If someone found your book with the first 30 pages missing, they should be able to piece together those absent aspects because of thorough writing. At the same time, you don’t want to over-explain things to a point where those who will take the time to finishing your writing in a sitting or two aren’t annoyed. That’s a fine line, and it’s where taking the time to vocalize your work helps immensely.

Writers cannot be so precious with our words that we don’t see the need for improvement before anyone else passes us a note. Sometimes, we are too close to the work to see what’s working, what’s not, what needs to be cut and what needs to be explored, and a trusted, outside eye is not only welcomed, but needed. But becoming your own editor first is a skill worth acquiring. Especially if you are an independent.

On occasion, I’ll meet a writer who believes their job is to “create”, and it’s an editor’s job to “shape”. Oh, golly. Where does one begin with that? It’s a wonderful fantasy to have, I suppose, but the days of an editor finding raw talent and polishing it into a stunning career is long gone. Even if you are fortunate enough to land a deal with a traditional publisher (congratulations!), you need to bring in solid, well-crafted work. Talent lies not just in the creativity, but in the skill to shape the work yourself.

It really isn’t that hard once you develop an editor’s eye. One of the exercises I give clients is to grab a book by a favorite author. Take any paragraph on any page and edit it. Make improvements to it. Trust me, it can be done, no matter how wonderful the writing. Try it right now. See? Not only is it easy, it’s kind of fun. And if you can do that for a superstar, you can certainly edit yourself.

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The Write Way – How to Format

After writing a novel, you are faced with formatting a couple hundred pages for various outlets (Kindle, iTunes, CreateSpace, etc.). It is at that time when you are formally introduced to each and every mistake you made along the way.

TypefaceWhen you are writing, all you want to do is focus on the writing. That’s how it should be. Once you’re done with that hard work, having survived the editing and proofing process, and polished your work to a point you feel it’s ready for the world, you are put through the special torture of formatting. During that horrible process, you find that certain things don’t line up as you’d like. Certain things you quite like don’t work at all, or throw your format off catastrophically (hello, Drop Cap). It is then that you see all the steps you could have taken at the start to avoid much of toil of tweaking little silly things so your book doesn’t look like the poster child for Amateur Hour.

From that personal experience, I devised a guide of sorts. Because, when I was searching for answers, I couldn’t find many that were clear, especially for those of us who write contemporary women’s lit that will go into multiple formats. However, if your write Romance, Sci-Fi or How-To guides, there is plenty of information about those genres’ formats.

{Please note, this is a living, breathing guide, and I would be honored if you would contribute your findings or argue as to what I’ve suggested is wrong and why. (Not that I want to pick fights, just please elaborate as to why your method works/is more proper so that other authors can get the logic and help further the discussion). Any changes made through your wisdom will be added here with a link to your preferred site or social media.}


Book/Manuscript Page Set Up

  • Set your Word doc to the proper page size (5.5 x 8.5). Your editor or proofreader will likely be doing their work in Word rather than on printed pages, so size shouldn’t matter here. I like doing it this way so I can see how it will look on the page (if I need to add or delete words if I don’t like where/how the hyphen break is happening, etc.).
  • Set Margins to Mirror. For me, that’s Top 0.6 Bottom 0.6 Inside 0.75 Outside 0.4 Header 0.5
  • Set Tools to Hyphenate automatically. Click here if you need help with that.
  • Set Section Breaks for Headers (book’s title and your name) and Footers (page numbers). You can find advice on how here and here.
  • Include Different First Page (so  won’t have a header or footer on your first chapter’s first page).
  • Insert Page Numbers where you want them to begin (after you set your Section Break for your Foreword or Chapter)
  • Set Fonts. I like Baskerville 11.5.
  • Set Paragraph spacing for After 0.2
  • Make sure that Widow and Orphan control is off so that you don’t have awkward gaps at the bottom of your pages.

Now, clearly this is for a book book (paperback or hardcover), easily modified for e-book formatting. I also do all of my front matter first. I like seeing the book come to life like that, and it’s just easy to get it done at the start, and change anything you need as you go. Having this established will help you keep in mind your page count/spine width in case you are setting your book up with a print house and want to save a few bucks by cutting a few pages.

Miscellaneous Advice:

  • Forget the Drop Cap. It looks nice but will get screwed up in the transfer to Mobi and iBooks Author.
  • Once you finish a book, do yourself a HUGE favor, and use it as a template. Yep, take the time to delete your text and leave the chapter headings and section breaks and all the things that drove you utterly nuts when you had to format and re-format it repeatedly. (I’m regretting not doing that right now. I did everything but leave the chapters. I know. You’re sitting there going, “Duh.” I’m sitting here going, “Doh!”)

I would love it if you would contribute your advice or let me know what you think is missing or would work better. Thank you!


Now, having said all that, I have made the switch over to Scrivener and am flirting with Pressbooks for my next novel. Not gonna lie, I am fretting over what will happen when it’s time to send my manuscript out for proofreading. Yes, you can export to Word then import it back. Sort of not the point. {In case you were wondering why I went to Scrivener, it was to be able to work on my book from my phone when I had a moment or two, or an idea struck. Really, it’s that simple. Why not just write on Pressbooks, you ask? Well, that’s a little too bloggy for me. I don’t like the idea of my work living on a website, but, somehow, I don’t mind the manuscript being up on Dropbox. I’m full of those kinds of contradictory quirks.}

So, back to my worries about Scrivener and proofing, I have thought of two solutions:

  • Buy my proofreader Scrivener ($40-45, depending on if they are PC or Mac).
  • Encourage my proofreader to do Scrivener’s generous 30-day (really 30 days’ use) trial.

I’ll likely go with Option 1. It’s a small investment that says, “I want to continue working with you.” If my proofers balk, then I’ll suck up the Word export/import and invest in a nice whiskey to help me through it.

Since I’m only eight chapters into my novel, I can’t really talk about the formatting process of Scrivener, or if/how Pressbooks will make life easier for what it costs. That will be updated here when those bridges get crossed. Pressbooks does have “sales” quite frequently, so if you are considering this, sign up (free) and keep your eye out for a deal that tickles your fancy.

I’ll keep you posted on what I discover. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts on formatting so we can all end the struggle. It is real. Very, very real. xo