Cutting like a Samurai

Most writers are familiar with the phrase “kill your darlings.” To non-writers, this can sound like some kind of cruel joke. Writers know, however, that it means sometimes you need to kill your best words, paragraphs, scenes, or even whole chapters, all in the name of the almighty plot.

Natalie Goldberg may have said it best in her book Writing Down the Bones. The book is filled with advice on the writing process and the psychology of being a writer. In one chapter, she compares the revision process to a battle as a samurai warrior:

“There should be no place in your writing for the ego to manipulate things the way it wants and to become picky. Instead, when you go over your work, become a Samurai, a great warrior with the courage to cut out anything that is not present. Like a Samurai with an empty mind who cuts his opponents in half, be willing to not be sentimental about your writing when you reread it. Look at it with a clear, piercing mind.”

The part about not being “sentimental” is the most important thing to keep in mind when killing your darlings. Sometimes a cut is easy, such as when a chapter is meandering, boring, or pointless to the plot. Other times, however, a cut is much harder. You might have a beautiful, riveting scene, one that makes you cry every time you read it. Yet if that scene isn’t crucial to the story and doesn’t fit in the overall plot, it needs to go.

Consider the example of Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings. He was a fun and interesting character, and one of the most memorable ones from the book. Yet he is conspicuously absent from the movies. Why? Well, according to the Wikipedia article on Bombadil, Peter Jackson said he was cut because “he does little to advance the story, and would make the film unnecessarily long. ” If you’ve read the Lord of the Rings books, you should have a hard time arguing with this point. Bombadil is fun. He’s charming. He’s a fascinating character. But he appears only briefly in the books and then has no further impact on the rest of the struggle against Saruman and Sauron. Since he has no real connection to the main plot, he had to be cut, and Peter Jackson did what any samurai had to do.

I’ve been doing a lot of revising lately. The progress bar on the right side of the blog shows the progress on the latest draft of Manifestation, based on input from the independent editor I hired. Part of the edits I’m making have been cuts, and some of them have been hard. In particular, the opening chapters (which I’d already cut down substantially from previous drafts) had to be trimmed. There were some excellent scenes in those chapters, and I really enjoy them. However, they amounted to back story that had no direct relevance on the main plot. It hurt to see some of them go, but I had to be a samurai and cut them out.

I’ve cut a LOT of words all said and done. The earliest draft of Manifestation was 124,420 words. The next revision actually expanded on several scenes to fill in some holes, and ended up at 139,312 words. Then I cut a lot of back story and any slow scenes that were dragging down the plot, and it went down to 112,297 words. The most recent set of cuts have dropped me down to 102,663 words. Yet even while I’m cutting, I have to add a bit here and there. For example, when I cut one chapter, I’ll need to add some elements to the next chapter to make sure there isn’t a hole now because of the missing material. What that means is I can’t just take the longest draft of 139k and subtract the current 102k to see how much I’ve cut. When I added up my individual cuts, they added up to a grand total of 58,391 words. Which means I added back in about 21k of new scenes while I’ve been making all the cuts (and the new scenes are a whole lot cleaner and better than the old ones).

Fortunately, “killing your darlings” doesn’t have to mean killing them dead. You can just “critically wound your darlings” and leave them bleeding in a sub-folder on your computer somewhere. Then you can use them again, such as in a future short story. I’ve written a lot of short stories for the Arcana Revived series, starting with Radiance the story of a young girl who has to cope with change when she undergoes a supernatural transformation. I plan on releasing a number of other short stories later this year. Some of the chapters cut from Manifestation may be adapted into short stories as part of that set. After all, an interesting and fun back story might not fit with the main plot, but it could still be a fascinating standalone piece. Such a piece could serve as an origin story for a character, revealing important pieces of their history. By using a cut scene as a short story like this, your “dead darlings” can be brought back from the grave and given a new life.

Writing is hard. Revisions are hard. Some of my writer friends say they think the first draft is the hardest. I disagree. You don’t need to kill your darlings in the first draft. Unless you can keep a cold, controlled samurai view of your work, revisions end up being the hardest part.

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