Saturday, May 5, 2012

Killing Your Darlings: How to Delete Material from a Manuscript without Tears

When you’re working on an extended piece of writing, whether it’s a novel, memoir or other form of non-fiction, editing is one of the most important and painful tasks. Hard as it is to face, much of what we write has to be ultimately turfed, chucked out, trashed. Whatever word you use, it’s all the same – it won’t belong in the piece. It will interrupt the flow, confound the narrative, or have the wrong tone.

Information on the practical aspects of editing your work is widely available, but it doesn’t make the emotional part any easier. Knowing a piece of copy isn’t right doesn’t make it any easier to cut out.

But it’s not all bad news. You don’t actually have to trash what doesn’t belong. In fact, there are many options for putting it to a completely new use. Below are some suggestions.

Store deleted text in a separate file. Don’t simply delete the text you need to discard. Create a file with a name that makes it easily identifiable, eg ‘Copy deleted from memoir’. Cut and paste any deleted copy into that, separating each piece of text with a line break. Even if you never use the copy, you’ll have a record of it. In the case of a memoir, you’ll retain scenes that have emotional resonance for you. View these scenes as the textual equivalent of the deleted movie scenes sometimes included on DVDs as extras – worthwhile revisiting for their own sake.

Make different versions of your manuscript. If you complete a draft of your manuscript before making major structural changes, you’ll probably have a strong level of emotional involvement with the earlier draft. In the case of a memoir this may be particularly strong because the earlier draft may include more information about your life, and what made you the person you became, than the later one. Retain two versions of the manuscript: the long version and the edited version. Publish the shorter version to rave reviews(!) and keep the long version as a record for your personal archive.

Repurpose text to create a new piece of writing. Deleted copy could become the basis for a new story, article, poem, play or blog entry, or perhaps a whole book!

A description of an eccentric relative or a significant trip could become the basis for an article that is published in a newspaper, magazine or journal, whether in hard copy or online. (This could be used as valuable publicity for your published book, as the bio that would accompany your piece would mention your book).

A descriptive line from a novel could become the inspiration for a poem.

A real-life incident that had to be cut from a memoir could become the basis for a short story, play or novel.

Alternatively, it might be the starting-point for a second memoir dealing with aspects of your life the first one didn’t. Augusten Burroughs, the acclaimed author of Running with Scissors, has now written a total of six memoirs, including three collections of stories from his life. Kathryn Harrison, author of acclaimed memoir The Kiss, has completed three memoirs and a book that is a combination of memoir and travelogue. (She has also published six novels, some of which deal with the lives of her maternal grandparents.)

Condense the copy and use it somewhere else. You don’t always have to explain everything in detail. Sometimes a paragraph or scene contains information that has value for readers but could be expressed more succinctly. My memoir originally included a scene in which my sister and I were taunted by a group of non-Catholic schoolchildren on the way to school. I deleted the scene because it wasn’t pivotal and made the memoir too lengthy, but its emotional import remains in the line ‘Would they laugh in my face when I cried, like the state school kids laughed?’

Describe your experiences of editing when you publicise your book. Readers are fascinated with the process of constructing an extended piece of writing. As well as the technical aspects, they’re curious about the emotional ups and downs that come with the territory, and the ways in which the writing impacts on real life. If you’re giving author talks to publicise your book, discussing what you took out (or left out) of your book and why, and the process of editing in general, can be rewarding for readers. It can also be the basis of an article itself – as this blog entry testifies!

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