Revision Is Premeditated Murder

“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…

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12 thoughts on “Revision Is Premeditated Murder

  1. “Save those bodies for other projects. Put them on ice.”…… I love this metaphor. When I use Writer’s Notebooks with students, I constantly remind them of the power of capturing words, phrases, ideas, etc. and the importance of writing these down in the notebook to be used for current or future writing. After reading your “Revision is Premeditated Murder”, I am thinking that Writer’s Notebooks, and all of their “never-used” and/ or ” revised and cut” words/ ideas within them can be the “holding place” or “morgue” in a sense…. A place for those murdered words, or a place for rebirth.

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    1. Keely, a Writer’s Notebook is a splendid idea. I wish I had kept some sort of written record, the kind you suggest. At best I have too many years worth of haphazard email to myself in archive. The idea of slogging through it is a special nightmare. A series of journals would be so much easier to deal with, more visual and tactile, and most importantly, accessible. Keep at them to maintain their morgue. It doesn’t have to be neat. They could paste or tape the the excised parts into the pages.

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  2. Like it! Look forward to more. I have never attempted creative writing. It is so much easier to write when the plot and characters are already determined ( aka “history”)!

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    1. I apologize for not figuring out how to respond individually sooner, Holly14. Your syllabus looks fantastic! I hope the course goes well. Do you ever indulge in historical fiction, or is it too close to the office? How about, for example, Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels? I devoured them, but I’m not an historian. I’m a hobbyist classicist, and while I like Song of Achilles very much, it annoyes me a great deal when details from Homer and Hesiod and other sources are set aside for nothing more than what seems to be whim when it doesn’t seem to drive plot in a different place.

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  3. Great post! i look forward to more! When can we read some of your stories? 🙂 Regarding the “putting on ice” advice, I remember reading that Carly Simon came up with her “clouds in my coffee” line on an airplane after observing actual clouds in her coffee. It was much later that the actual song wrapped itself around the line.

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  4. Well written and thoughtful post! Murdering my darlings is one of the hardest things to do in writing. Whenever I write I am always self-conscious of the fact that I am never taking the advice I give my students. I am always revising profusely before I finish a rough draft. I tend to write in waves. I write several paragraphs. Go back, reread, rewrite those paragraphs and then move on to write several paragraphs more; go back, reread, rewrite, and then write several paragraphs more, until I’m done. And then the reshuffling and the murdering of darlings begins, and my heart breaks and I grow despondent. I think ultimately, despite all the advice people and teachers give in writing, it all boils down to whatever works works.

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    1. Oh yes, the advice we give to students and the practices we follow ourselves -there exists a disparity there. Well, not always, but at least with writing, I tend to think it’s our job too to offer a menu of options. Especially with young students –young in their education, not necessarily their years, because as you say, whatever works. But what works for one may be a barren disaster for another. I like what you wrote, “My heart breaks and I grow despondent.” It is a heartbreaking thing.

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  5. Thank you all for reading and commenting. Riley, since I posted this, my first, and now, dusty post, you have seen a draft, far down the line of a story I submitted for publication. My writing and revision process matches Peter’s in many ways, and could be why we work so well together. There ends up so little to send around that posting it here feels like spending my coin too soon. Holly14, your comment gave me the most pause, because history can be as much a surprise to me as fiction. But, there is, of course, a difference between the two. No matter how much we know of people’s lives in the past, seemingly infinite moments remain a mystery.

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    1. It is those “seemingly infinite moments” and the way that those moments “remain a mystery” that inspire me to write. It is a forever quest to find the treasure. I’m feeling a bit like Indiana Jones with a pen and paper at the moment. Ha. I also think I need to find a new map, or perhaps I am reading mine upside down. 🙂

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      1. I immediately think of histories like your relative, Keely. There exist the facts of general knowledge, and with research, you may establish even more that gives insight into his life: letters, journals, housekeeping accounts, the testimony of others. Yet there will remain an unavoidable mystery concerning some of his life. Lately, this is something that has pre-occupied me with the loss of people this year. We now leave more of ourselves behind with email, texting, social networking, writing. But, it’s a chaotic mess. It’s as messy as conversation and it’s impulsive. It will leave a frustrating historical record. Maybe you do need a new map.

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