A few months ago, I attended a one-day seminar on revision. The lecturer started off by asking the audience to describe “revision” in one word. Everyone laughed when somebody said, “Hell.”
Except me. I know not everyone out there shares my, shall we say, “exotic” writerly proclivities, but the upsurge of laughter in the room surprised me. It was the withering, head-shaking laughter of shared anguish, whereas what I think I had been hoping for when I signed up was a twenty-five-to-thirty-person-
Yes, I thought. A river of still-warm supporting-character-blood.
Fictional people should have a name for me: The Mangler would sound good, if it weren’t already taken. It is sadly appropriate. Like so many compulsive revisers, I suffer from a tendency to get a little too trigger-happy. On a Tuesday I decide to take a character I’ve spent two years developing and execute him at point blank range. By Thursday he’s been resurrected, but the entire backstory about his tragic relationship with his aunt has been loaded onto a barge, cast out to sea, and set ablaze. Early Friday morning I give him a cat; two hours later I drown the cat and give him an iguana. By Friday night I’ve driven him out to the desert and made him dig his own grave at gunpoint. Sometime next Tuesday, it occurs to me at last that all this carnage might have ultimately been senseless—I have “mangled” my story beyond recognition.
On the other hand, I have occasional, brilliant moments wherein the usual mayhem feels more controlled, my deletion-spree less like a slasher movie rampage and more like so many sleekly executed assassinations. Such revisions are not the work of the Mangler, but of a true professional, preferably in leather pants, who travels light, packs her own heat, and never gets caught.
But really, when the brains and guts hit the wall, who can say what makes the mark of a darling-assassin versus your chainsaw-wielding, flayed-face-wearing word-count slasher? When you visit the scene of the crime—i.e., the revised draft—what evidence will have been left behind? Well, if you are indeed dealing with a professional, then the answer is: none. No fingerprints, no blood-smears on the doorframe, no clothing fibers, no bullet-casings. You enter a clean, orderly, but not too orderly room, where no one would suspect anything gruesome to have ever happened.
Professional assassins are careful yes, but they also take the time to get to know their targets. Not only is a professional assassin supplied with handy-dandy dossiers in manila folders, she also does her own homework. She learns her target’s habits and mannerisms, their peculiarities, their deepest fears and greatest strengths. She knows what her target is doing on Tumblr at 2am, the last time they called their mother, and exactly what they’ll do if they find a lost wallet on the street. The real difference between manglers and professionals is that a professional knows what it is that she is killing down to the last detail, and when the time is right, she cleanly, efficiently, and calculatedly pulls the trigger, knowing full well exactly what is lost in the offing.
How you kill your darlings really doesn’t matter–the lecturers and advice books are right about that. The aftermath of the crime defines the killing, and how deftly the killer can keep up with the changes landscape is what defines her. Now that the target is gone, where does the world need to reshape itself? How is its integrity maintained? Will certain things move closer, and others apart? Will other things, in turn, vanish? From the writer/assassin’s perspective, these ripples ought to be taken in with the utmost care and discretion—after all, slipping out between the lines is the only way to make the perfect getaway.
Once the story has finished reshaping itself in the wake of our killing spree, we may discover that our little world fits itself better than ever before: because, in fact, the darlings were dead all along. This is the part where when the violence against our own creations stops being senseless, when we see how the world surrounding those darlings shudders to life in the aftermath of their quietus. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, the choice to kill a darling reveals the writer to herself. Nine times out of ten, it reveals the story to the author.
When we writers talk flippantly about killing our darlings, we are as a rule suffering behind our smirks. They wouldn’t be darlings if their deaths were pure fun. But just as there is something intensely sacred about these gorgeous sentences that go nowhere and completely superfluous characters that remind us of our mothers, there can also be something personal, something intimate, in their cold-blooded destruction.
So go on and kill the bastards already. You might even enjoy it.