“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art of Writing, 1916
My short story is in a wonderful tangle at the moment because I began to revise before I completed it. At the time this made all kinds of sense, primarily because the story required some tinkering on point of view. My experiment on expanding the point of view to two characters’ observations, thoughts, impressions and emotions seemed like a good idea at first but as the story progressed, one character’s perspective began to dominate. The draft needed some clarity in this respect. It was an easy fix that would have taken little time to correct. Then, I should have been on my merry way.
Not so. I became caught up in addressing other issues my astute in-house reader and citric pointed out. It’s not as if the comments were going anywhere, and for damn sure, my momentum faltered. Now, I have a hot mess on my hands but not an irredeemable one. Already it is clear where the murders will take place. My little darlings are marked.
Free writing has never been easy for me. A philosopher by training and a technical writer by trade, methodical, logical writing, however graceful and compelling, is quite different from creative writing. I am learning that my story, the characters, the structure of the narrative, and most frustrating, my sense of control is a delicate thing. At times I continue to labor over each sentence for that just-right Goldilocks turn of phrase, still caught up in a sort of creation/revision in-between place. There persists a balance between control and flow, choices and timing. Much depends on writing in the moment and revising later.
Now, revising is something with which I possess considerable experience and have grown to appreciate. Revision is fiendish in its conventions, and when approached with a pitiless attitude, it is in its own strange way, fun. I do not know if other creative writers agree, since my background comes from the brutal business of writing persuasive grant proposals and other technical documents. Team-write with a group of aggressive writers out to make at an average hundreds of thousands in funding in a quick turn around on a proposal, writing around-the-clock for 72 hours or less, and the utility and necessity of revision spares no one. “Murder your little darlings” Arthur Quiller-Couch advises. I agree. Plan on it. Revision is nearly a blood bath. It’s a killing floor filled with words, images, ideas, agonizing choices, mistakes and hope. But it is not a spree. It is efficient, objective, and ruthless.
Of course, save those bodies for other projects. Put them on ice. The goal is to refine and shape your work into its purest, brilliant distillation. Revision is when this takes place, not during the gloriously messy phase of creation. In my haste to perfect, I lost sight of this critical distinction and look where it got me. I was ready to drown those two characters in my story, through no fault of their own: two sisters making their way up a creek. So, they wait for me in the sweltering heat of a Tennessee summer while I get it together.
But, little do they know…