The First Time I Killed My Little Darlings

It felt like chopping up my baby.

CC0 public domain image from

I met Miss Snark’s words with growing dismay. Was she out of her mind?

The anonymous New York literary agent’s blog offered near-sacred advice for aspiring novelists — i.e., struggling, largely crappy newbie writers.

(Well, those others anyway. Not me.)

I’d finished my novel, planned to check for typos, tighten up a few lines here and there, and schlep it off to New York, post haste.

But here was Miss Snark telling me my magnum opus, about a Pagan woman who’s gifted a medieval book of powerful spells she views as merely a historical artifact, wasn’t anywhere close to being ready.

For one thing, sez she, a debut novel mustn’t be more than 150,000 words, and better 125–130,000 words.

Was she out of her New York state of mind???

Was she serious?

Was 300,000 words honestly too long?

Who wrote that ridiculous rule? I’d bet it wasn’t Stephen King, Master of Doorstops! (Never mind how Carrie was 60,000 words.)

Anyone ever heard of Margaret Mitchell? Gone With The Wind! 418,000! (FIRST AND ONLY!)

Okay, okay, that was like seventy years ago. But hey, look at this, Miss Snark! A DEBUT NOVEL about vampire librarians (yes, you read that right) just came out and it’s 240,000 words!

So yeah, you can have a debut novel thicker than a grilled cheese sandwich!

(It sucked. Torturous.)

Yah sure, mine’s still longer — I’ll bet I could whack it down to 240,000. And it definitely doesn’t suck!

Miss Snark begged to differ. She listed the literary sins of the wannabe novelist’s first effort: Too many characters; subplots that go nowhere; too many useless words; too much description (especially settings); too-long-too-graphic sex scenes; plots that sag in the middle or lack dramatic tension.

Her annoying list nagged me like a persistent pet demanding attention when I had more important things to do. I pushed it away but it kept throwing its paws in my lap.

Maybe 300,000 words was too long for a debut novel, today.

Other, better writers got away with these crimes in the past but maybe longer novels were best left to the pros. She was right. Stephen King I ain’t.

Then again, Stephen King wasn’t Stephen King, either. I felt IT could have been pared down by about a quarter to a third. Having read even heavier doorstops since then, I’m done with Stephen King until some brave editor goes Freddie Krueger on every work over 100,000 words and slashes them down to Abridged.

Better writers than the King and I had committed these many sins.

Too many characters: Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy.

Subplots going nowhere: J.R.R. Tolkien.

Plots without dramatic tension: Jules Verne

Not knowing when the story ends: Tolkien again, and King’s Rose Madder.

Too many useless words: Every Victorian writer. And Tolstoy.

Too much description, especially of settings: Tolkien again. Tolstoy — farming.

Too-long, too-graphic sex scenes: Every novel written since 1980, until, I guess, 2005.

Although I happily cut my 10-page orgasm down to his slipping his hand under her halter top and ending, “I arched my back, abandoning myself.”

Stories sagging in the middle: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. I’ve half-read it twice and he loses me after the aliens reveal themselves.

They’d all broken Miss Snark’s One Blog Tip To Rule Them All: Kill your darlings.

‘Murder your darlings’, the original phrase, is often attributed to William Faulkner but can be traced further to the English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Not only must you employ relentless zeal in removing all unnecessary words, but you must be ready to axe whole sections, scenes, or chapters if they drag the story down or otherwise don’t advance the plot. First and foremost, Padawan: Get over the delusion every first-draft word you wrote is farking gold.

You ain’t Hemingway, and neither am I. Even Hemingway wasn’t

Hemingway on the first draft.

We beginners don’t know what we don’t know. We learn our style from the novelists we’ve read, not always the best examples for how to write today. (Especially the ‘great’s!) Not even from a few decades ago. Styles change. Often, for the better.

Once over the shock of Miss Snark’s bitter diktat, I locked my ego in the closet and drew out my Freddie Krueger gloves.

I pulled up my beautiful darling first draft and saved it as a second, in case I needed to restore anything (I never did). I locked my ego in the closet, whacking and slashing like the deranged leathery pedophile.

Creative Commons 3.0 image by Quintenense on Wikimedia Commons

That scene had to go. That one too. The confrontation with the ex-husband contributed nothing to the plot. Slashed! Bye, pointless subplot!. Sayonara, lengthy conversation! (Damn, did my characters love to talk!) I whacked a bad guy like Tony Soprano and offloaded his evil duties to his remaining Norwegian black metal band buddies. And why the hell did the main character escape her captors twice? Like, they caught her again? And her rescuers could even get near her after that little stunt? What was the point? I couldn’t remember. Cue the high-pitched shower violins.

It took around two hours. The first hour I got halfway through but the grief was too heavy. I forced myself to go back with my chop-chops a few days later.

I felt like I’d cut the limbs off my own baby. How could you? I could hear the first draft wail from the bowels of my hard drive.

I must have lost at least 100,000 words, I consoled myself. I just needed to tighten it up and get it down to under 200,000, my new goal.

254,000 words.

Motherf — .

I bought a book called