Words for Writers: Killing Your Babies

Coined by Ernest Hemmingway, the phrase “to kill your babies” is not about infanticide, but about editing.

Tumblr Question: If you’d be so inclined to discuss the matter, I wouldn’t mind seeing you address the writing concept of what I refer to as Killing Your Babies. The next step after learning all the rules, and structure and tradition and accepted theories and habits, and knowing when to tear the rule books up. Just tossing that one out there. : )

Right. Okay. This is a hard one.  Especially if we’re talking about your first novel.

Simply, “Killing Your Babies” refers to having to edit out something you love in order to make the story/book/script better. It utterly, completely sucks. It is, quite frankly, one of the hardest things to do as a professional writer.  When you write, you will inevitably get attached to an idea, or a character, or a concept, or a line – and generally, like any proud parent, you will cling tooth and nail to that thing you love, and will do anything to keep it in the story.

For me it’s the last one – I get so attached to specific phrases, and I do anything in my power to keep them.

(Gabrielle Harbowy has actually told me that I crow over them like Peter Pan – “Oh, the cleverness of me!” – and that it’s difficult to get me to cut them. She says it’s one of my biggest flaws, and I consciously make an effort to not be Peter-Pan-like whenever I get my edits and revisions back.)

It’s bugging hard, killing your baby. Removing something from a book is emotionally draining. You mourn for what has to go, you bargain to keep it in, you rail and you get angry that nobody understands why it should stay. It’s got such a visceral phrasing for a reason – because you behave and you feel as if you actually are killing a helpless infant. And you mourn it as if it were an actual death.

But in the end, the aim of a writer is to create a script/novel that is a cohesive whole with nothing superfluous.

Knowing whether you should remove it is another matter entirely. It’s really hard to figure out which of your babies you should be killing, if any at all.

Generally, I find that if more than one beta reader comments about it, then it’s a good indication that, no matter how much I love it, it doesn’t need to be there or is actively impairing the quality of the manuscript.  If more than one reader says “Why is this character here?” or “this scene is the way of the plot” or “why do you need this concept?”, then it’s an indicator that the stuff that’s getting the negative attention needs to be addressed.

Sometimes, I force myself to sit back and ask, out loud, “Is this self-indulgent?” If the answer is yes, then out it comes. Or I’ll ask, “Is this impeding the pace of the narrative? Is it keeping my hero from being the hero? Or my villain from being the villain? Is it absolutely necessary for the reader to know this, or can they understand the world/narrative just fine without it?” If I answer yes, out it comes.

But killing babies is an intensely personal process, and I can’t offer pithy advice or hard-and-fast-rules on how to deal with it. All I can say, really, is… deal with it.

If you want to be a professional writer – novelist, academic, screenwriter, etc. – part of that is learning to suck it up and do whatever it takes to make your story the best it can be. Part of that is learning how to take criticisms and look at them with a level head and make a choice. (And that’s hard, I won’t pretend it’s not. I’ve had to email my agent and apologize for my overly emotional reply more than once).

Sometimes it means arguing with your agent/editor about choices, and defending yours; sometimes it means accepting that you wrote too much, or didn’t explain it well enough, or that you need to delete a character, or that, something you love has to go.

The thing with a story is that there is always so much more in your head than what you can cram onto a page. There are scenes, little moments, backstories, world building, characters, and conversations that you think are stunningly important and fascinating. You wouldn`t have written your book (or screenplay, or comic, etc) if you didn’t.

But it can’t possibly all fit on the page. Not if you are going to tell a good story, and that is the key thing to remember. That, in the end, you are telling a story. A single, vital, living story. It might have subplots and twists, but in the end it all braids together to become one story and it is that story that you have to serve.

I will repeat: it sucks.

Nobody wants to kill their babies. But in the end, you owe it to your work – your world, your characters – to give it the best presentation you can.

And if you really, really love what you’ve cut, keep it in a morgue file/box, and save it for another project, where it might work better.

I’ve already given a case study about having to pull an entire character out of a WIP, and the angst it caused, so I decided to poll my writer friends to see if they had any advice or stories to share.

Here is some more advice from other writers:

Julie Czerneda, author of The Species Imperative series:

Doesn’t bother me at all. I’m ruthless. I delete. Paragraphs, scenes, chapters, plot threads, characters. Highlight, delete. I refuse to look back or regret or save. I think it’s my training from non-fiction, in part, and being an editor as well. If A doesn’t work, wipe the slate and try B. Faster and cleaner. When something’s right, I can tell because it survives me, but if a phrase or cool bit tries to persist beyond its expiry, I’m suspicious of its motives. Off with its head!

That being said, this is how I behave during my own revision process. If my editor finds something that will be a problem for a reader in the draft I submit, almost always it’s not a question of something needing to go, but of something missing. I didn’t include a step or reveal a point or set up an emotional payoff properly. I tend to err on the side of oooh, I’m being mysterious.

The bottomline? There’s always a better way to write something, and never enough time to explore all the possibilities. Perfection is a direction, not a goal. If pruning makes the work better, and it usually does, keep the clippers close at hand.

From Jason Leaver, Writer/Creator of the smash-hit webseries Out With Dad:
When I write a screenplay I always let go of the practicality of production. Just write from my heart and worry about the rest later. “Later” have a nasty habit of catching up – and sometimes you’re forced to make harsh revisions based on the practicality of production, budget, logistics or even technical limitations.

The project I’m in development on right now has core concept that I’m IN LOVE WITH. I’d go so far as saying it is the heart of the project. However, this piece of the complicated puzzle that is production-hell, has been vetoed by my producers. I hate them for it, yet I can’t deny they’re right. It is simply outside the scope of feasibility. The compromise we have is good. One day I may even see it as an improvement. For now though, it feels like this project has been downgraded. That downgraded feeling will probably last right up until we get into production.

From Laurie Channer, author of Godblog:
Yes, you sometimes have to kill your babies, or chop off their cute little fingers.  But just because you love it doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for the piece.  But you’re a writer, and you go confidently knowing someday you can cannibalize those orphan bits (mixing my metaphor here somewhat) into something else that you’ll write.  That lovely moment, or killer piece of dialogue or entire scene can be dredged back up and tweaked into something new you’re doing.  And then that’s one less thing that you have to make up.

From August C. Bourre of Vestige Book Reviews:
The more you do it, the easier it gets. And most important: learn to tell between what you like & what’s good. Not always the same.

Derwin Mak, Aurora Award winning author of The Moon Under Her Feet:
A story should be more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, if there’s an idea, character, subplot, paragraph, description, or sentence that doesn’t work well with the rest of the story, you have to get rid of it, no matter how interesting or well-written it is on its own. You can save it for use in another story later, but your priority is to make your current story the best it can be.

Ira Nayman, author of the Alternate Reality Information Network series:

  1. Look at every opportunity to rewrite as a new opportunity to exercise your creativity.If you think of rewriting as a chore, like doing the dishes or declawing the rhinoceros, you are guaranteed to hate the process. If, on the other hand, you approach it with the same attitude that you approach your first drafts, you will find it much easier (and actually fun, as hard as that may be to believe). Consider writing a story answering a series of “What happens next?” questions. When you’re writing your first draft, you’re asking the questions yourself. When rewriting, the questions are being asked by the editor. Ultimately, no matter who asks the questions, your job is to make the story the best that it can be.
  2. Write a lot.If it takes you ten years to write a single short story, you will be crushed if an editor suggests you change a single word. If, in those 10 years, you have written a couple dozen short stories, a few novellas and a novel or two – and you are constantly circulating them until they find their publisher – you will be less emotionally invested in any individual work. Not only will this make it easier for you to rewrite, but it takes the sting out of outright rejection.
  3. Keep in mind that in our digital age, nothing is etched in stone.If, after rewriting a story at the behest of an editor, you still feel that your original version was better, wait until the rights revert back to you and publish your original version on your Web site. In fact, you can have fun with this: post both versions and ask your readers which they prefer (as long as you’re willing to accept the possibility that they will choose the edited version…)


    For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.


JM FreyWords for Writers: Killing Your Babies