February 10, 2010

Kill Your Darlings!

Last night I had a very interesting discussion at my weekly writer's group, about a couple of short stories I had written. Two of the stories had roots in my own life - one a biographical anecdote written down in prose form and the other, although fictional, had a lot inspired from real life in terms of characters, and 70% of the story was true. I got some very thought provoking feedback for tightening up the writing/plot in order to make the stories more interesting and thematic. I guess when I write inspired by real life, I tend to become imprisoned by it, and I have trouble thinking outside the box. I don't want to cut characters because to me they are real people, and combining them seems like a wicked thing to do.

But real life is not always as enticing as fiction, and the day to day characters you see are not the larger than life people who stay with you after reading a novel. Unless you are writing a biography, then real life is allowed to get twisted and distorted if it makes things more interesting and entertaining.

I first reacted to the suggestions with a mental block, reluctant to change things beyond recognition. I think this is a common feeling when criticism  contradicts your own ideas. But as I said before, sometimes criticism can show you things you failed to see before that could actually take your work to another level. After a good night's sleep, I realised the suggestions I received were REALLY good. I now have the opportunity to turn my OK stories into really good ones. Sacrifices will need to be made: scenes will get cut, characters will get combined or eliminated, and the original vision might be changed significantly; but those sacrifices will be worth it in the end.

I think it's good for me to question my own work. Yes, I have a vision for a story, but is that story effective enough? Can it be better, more interesting or thought provoking? Do I know something doesn't work but don't do anything about it, because I have some attachment to that scene/person? The thing I am learning about editing is that it's not just stylistic - it's not just about whether I have enough showing/telling, too many adverbs or clichés or decent grammar, it's also about trying to do the best with your story.

But it's good I am learning about these things. I think making mistakes is better than no mistakes. You can read things in books and think "yeah yeah I know" but you don't learn it - not unless you've done it and caught out for it and I can guarantee you won't consciously do it again! It's not bad when someone tells you "it needs re-writing, but it's worth re-writing".  I just need to remember not to be a pussy and kill my darlings if they are really not necessary.

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