Farewell, My Darlings

“Kill Your Darlings, kill your darlings…” Stephen King On Writing

 

No writer likes rejection letters, particularly the impersonal ones. But even rejection plays a part in the success of what we do. Rejections can send us back to the manuscript, to reassess and, yes, to edit and rewrite. When Absolution was turned down by several New York publishing houses, I did my own manuscript soul-search. Even though the novel form has traditionally lent itself to flab, in today’s markets flab is out. Still, I resisted at first any major changes, but eventually set about trimming the flab from Absolution. Most of the time, I just grit my teeth and cut. But there was one scene I couldn’t bear to cut, what Stephen King means by a writer’s darling.

 

Writing fiction seldom comes easily. Those of us who do it agonize over our characters and dialogue, over the scenes that aren’t quite right or refuse to come alive. I spend many hours, sometimes weeks and months, editing and rewriting. Yet every now and then on a first draft, a scene or passage, a snatch of dialogue will come to me whole and spontaneously, like a gift from the gods. These are the paragraphs or pages that are hardest to relinquish, my darlings. The darling in the Absolution manuscript was a flashback to Maggie’s childhood in rural North Carolina, when she and a neighbor boy find a dead baby in the grass beside the railroad tracks near Maggie’s farm. I particularly liked this scene because it began as a summer idyll, two kids placing nickels on the rails to be flattened by an on-coming train. But then the scene develops into something darker, much like Maggie’s later life. So, no, I didn’t want to cut it. Yet in the end, I did.

 

The first outing for the slimmed down manuscript resulted in its publication.

 

I doubt that one omitted scene mattered, but my decision to stringently edit the manuscript was certainly the difference between publishing and not publishing Absolution. So here’s my advice to new writers. Cutting and editing are essential skills in this business, and there are times, as Stephen King says, when we absolutely must “kill our darlings.” But when you do cut a favorite scene or passage, save it! Later, if you decide it’s worthless gibberish, you can trash it. But you never know when you might find exactly the right spot for it somewhere else.

 

Here’s a passage from Absolution:

 

How surprising our lives were, she thought. The way they turned out. That she had not married Baird. And married Richard. And how one day Richard went into a drug store to pick up a prescription and a sixteen-year-old boy shot him. We don’t see life coming. She supposed that was providential. How could we ever be happy otherwise? Years ago in New York, in the apartment she shared with Baird, as several friends talked late one night over beer and pot, Ev Quincy described life as a game of pool.

“We’re just little balls rolling in one direction until we hit something or something hits us and the force sends us careening another way, until we finally drop off the table.”

“God, I guess, is the guy with the cue stick,” Baird said, passing Ev a joint.

“That’s one way of putting it.”

Baird laughed. “So our fate depends on what kind of game God’s having.”

“Fuck the metaphysics,” replied Ev.

This banter between Ev and Baird with the game of pool as metaphor was taken from an earlier, never published manuscript. I remembered it while I was writing Maggie’s inner monologue above, so I searched my files to find it, then lifted its seven sentences verbatim and dropped them into Absolution. I was delighted by how perfectly they fit, how they provided a brief but telling insight into each of these men’s character: Baird’s sunny nature, Ev’s snarky cynicism. Even the four-letter word seemed right here. Yet, the dialogue in these seven sentences was originally written to be spoken by two entirely different fictional characters, one of them a woman.

 

I haven’t found a spot yet for Maggie and the neighbor kid putting nickels on the train tracks. But I’m still saving it.