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On Murdering 22,000 Darlings

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David Corbett for Writer Unboxed

One learns a lot about one’s writing habits—and oneself—when cutting almost 19 percent of a manuscript, paring it from 119,000 words (476 pages) to 97,000 words (409 pages).

Mind you, this wasn’t a first draft—it had been reviewed twice by a Zoe Quinton, a developmental editor I very much respect and trust (and whom I interviewed here at Writer Unboxed). After our work together, she said:

“SO well done. I’m blown away by the amount of work you did, and how well you integrated all the pieces together to form a truly stunning, gripping whole. I loved every minute of it, and nearly cried at the end, even knowing what the basic setup would be. You’ve got a hell of a book here, one of the best I’ve ever worked on. Bravo.”

Once I began submitting to agents, however, with the exception of two agents I’ll discuss shortly, I either heard nothing back or got the seldom helpful, “Not for me, good luck with it elsewhere.” The two agents who provided some feedback said two very different but very helpful things. (It’s currently under submission with two other agents, one of who seems particularly receptive.)

The first of the two agents who provided notes complimented my writing but remarked that my use of a gay, bi-racial (Cambodian/African American) woman main character made the book virtually impossible to sell in today’s cultural environment given the #mystory movement.

The second agent, despite liking a great deal about the book, comparing it at one point to American Gods, felt a lack of “narrative urgency” in the writing.

In discussing all this with Zoe, she responded that my female character’s sexuality and race had raised no reds flags for her, and she is sensitive to such things. She also found comparing the book to American Gods then bemoaning a lack of narrative urgency puzzling, as Neil Gaiman’s novel is hardly a full-throttle page turner, but shares some of the philosophical, mythical, and historical texture of my book.

Let me be clear: I in no way fault Zoe for the extensive post-edit rewrite I ended up conducting. Her job was to read the book, note its shortfalls as she saw them, help me correct them, while at the same time being conscientious of what she saw as my voice, my style, and the type of book I seemed to want to be writing—a big, sprawling, dystopian journey covering a great deal of the American landscape with a mythical backdrop.

But given my respect for the two agents who gave me notes, I felt obliged to pay attention to what they were telling me.

On reflection, making my female main character Irish-American and heterosexual not only didn’t present an overwhelming obstacle, it actually made better sense. The story concerns how a book she slaved over—a class project for a professor who was also her lover—got stolen from her when she went into an emotional tailspin after the professor cruelly broke things off. The book she created concerned Irish myth—which makes a heck of a lot more sense with someone of Irish heritage.

I wrote the character as originally conceived because the story takes place during a race war here in the U.S., and she represents exactly the multicultural/multi-racial component to our country that I want to champion and defend. But I realized I simply had to find other ways to make that point.

So that part of the rewrite seemed straightforward. Once I began reworking that aspect of the story, however, I began to realize that the other agent was also correct.

There was simply far too much needless description, excessive commentary, and just plain clutter, along with unnecessary or dramatically flat scenes—all of which I had slaved over, but which I now saw as in need of serious rewriting or just the old heave-ho.

And the more I cut, the more I comfortable I got with the paring. And the more comfortable I got with trimming, the more alert I became to what qualified for removal.

In his writing guide Best Words, Best Order, the poet and novelist Stephen Dobyns talks about honesty in the context of recognizing what is necessary and what is unnecessary in a piece of writing. He describes how, when several of his early mysteries were reissued and he had a chance to revisit them, he became dismayed at how much excess writing they contained, and was happy to have the chance to cut some of that away. He’d tried very hard to make the originals as lean as possible, and at the time believed he’d done so, but clearly he’d also allowed himself some puffery he now recognized as self-indulgent.

He concluded that he had not been entirely honest with himself about what really needed to be there, and instead gave in to the impulse to allow himself some “fine writing” that, on rereading, stuck out like a sore thumb.

It’s sometimes said that writing problems are personal problems—i.e., whatever mistakes you make in your writing often reflect personal faults you may or may not be aware of.

As I worked through this last rewrite, I came to realize that I too had not been honest enough. I habitually overwrite, and it should be something I recognize and correct before submission. But I had been impatient, impulsive, self-indulgent, and more willing to listen to the praise of others than my own nagging doubts.

Overwriting is hardly an uncommon problem. When writing our initial drafts, we’re discovering the story for ourselves, fleshing out the logical contingencies that make the story plausible, describing places and people in great detail to make sure we’re not overlooking something. Often, in the days after writing a scene, we’ll realize we’ve missed something—a nuance, a subtlety, a contradiction—and will go back and fill it in.

When returning to the text for a rewrite, however, much of that exploration proves to be excessive, and determining how little is necessary to convey what we intend—succinctly, powerfully, dramatically—is one of the key focus points of competent revision.

I don’t believe editors, certainly not developmental editors, can reliably perform this work for us. One reason for that is their desire not to undermine what they believe is the writer’s voice. (To paraphrase Hemingway, they confuse our mistakes for our style.)

We are the ones who truly know—or should know—what the story is about and what’s necessary to pull it off. And we need to be brutally honest about that.

Now, when revising what’s been overwritten, it’s also important not to overcorrect. The dictum “Less is more,” deserves the adjunct, “unless it’s not enough.” On one or two occasions—but no more than that—I ended up reinserting something I thought I could cut, only to realize upon re-reading that the trimmed-down result was unclear.

The final edit of a story or novel requires an unflinching devotion to walking that fine line between just enough to avoid confusion and more than necessary to create the desired effect. There are also some simple, tactical matters that need to be faced squarely in the need of economy, simplicity, and clarity, especially in the realm of dialogue, speech tags, transitions, descriptions, and chapter endings.

The point is reader engagement, and excess writing not only tests readers’ patience by forcing them to wallow through needless verbiage, it also all too often overexplains, making too explicit what they want to infer for themselves.

It’s important to realize that often it’s by not saying something that we allow subtext to make the point for us, and the inference of meaning from subtext is one of the great joys of reading.

I had hoped to give examples of what I cut and why, but this post is already long enough. (How sadly apropos it would be to overwrite a post on overwriting.) I will save those examples for next month’s post.

Is your principle difficulty with writing overwriting or underwriting. If the former, how comfortable are you with murdering your darlings? If the latter, what do you look for to flesh the story out further.

To what extent would you say your writing problems reflect personal problems?



About David Corbett

David Corbett (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.


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