Killing My Darlings

Edited Sentences

Here’s another written something I’ve been sitting on. I didn’t post it at the time it was current, and not long after I turned my attention to some other projects for awhile that took me away from the novel. Thought about posting it anyway, but every time the thought crossed my mind, the post no longer seemed relevant, since it didn’t reflect what I was actually working on. I figured I’d wait to post until I returned to the novel again.

But I don’t know when that’s going to be, realistically. So—

***

Since I wrapped up “Hidden Houses“, I’ve been editing—the 114,000 word novel that I started in 2010 and want to finally get in submittable shape by the time the baby comes in February (we’re assuming – but to riff on something my midwife told me when I was pregnant with Xochitl, birth is as predictable as life is). So, anyway, I’ve been in revision mode since summer, and one of my main tasks has been to get the word count down from 114,000 to 100,000, that being the upper limit for literary fiction—what the manuscript is, I guess, despite writing conference instructions to never use this phrase in any query letter worth shit.

I’m proud to say that I’ve been able to cut 11,000 words so far, with 3,000 left to go. To be honest, it’s been kind of fun—it feels like cleaning and reorganizing your house when you finally get enough time off from work to really pay attention to the clutter and chaos you’ve been forced to live amidst and tune out. What’s amazing about the process is how much you can cut even before you get to hard choices about story and character development, AKA killing your darlings. For instance, I shed about 5,000 words just by going through the manuscript and cutting unnecessary filler words that I didn’t even realize how much I overused (just, seemed, that, of, down). That’s 5,000 words without even touching any part of the story. The other 6,000 I cut by doing a “scene analysis,” going thru the manuscript and listing each scene, then rating scenes for the work they do in moving the story forward causally or emotionally (2 for vital, 1 for just there, 0 for useless). I didn’t have any zeros, thankfully, though maybe that says more about my resistance to cutting down into the story. I did find a number of “just there” scenes, present either as throat-clearing introduction to the meat of a scene or as overly detailed/explanatory passages. I also found a few scenes where I just didn’t like the writing and was happy to chuck it. Though I still have another 3,000 words to cut (plus some story and character development stuff I need to address), the result thus far has been a tighter pacing that reveals the real substance and structure of the story much more clearly, I think.

Still, I did have to kill some of my darlings along the way. Here are a couple passages I really loved that ended up on the cutting floor.

In the nights before Lali leaves town again, not two years after she has returned, Joel would in fact lay hands on her and gather an image of an immense cranial tree swelling above her head, its limbs becoming her arms, its roots woven into her veins. It is all that mental energy, professor, he would say, touching her face and forehead so tenderly that she cried with eyes screwed shut, lying on the floor of his apartment with its stacks of moving boxes. Sensory images leaping to her mind, of places she had not thought about since she left California: of standing kneedeep in alluvial grasslands on a late summer tour of the Yolo causeway, where during the winter rainy season they would release the waters of the Sacramento river to create a shallow ocean. She remembers how the setting sun struck the basin, inflaming its patchwork of gold and lavender, terracotta and cinnamon, lamb’s ear green. She remembers standing barefoot on the sidewalk outside a friend’s apartment on another summer evening in Northern California, the day’s heat firm against her feet as palm fronds swayed over the black rail of the train tracks. Sitting over her where she lies on the floor, he calls forth these forgotten things from her body as he lays his hands on her, he calls forth new realizations—that she must have loved the land unthinkingly, even in a place that never ceased to feel like exile. They are sense memories, but in appearing they are also anticipatory; they are memories of possible futures.

It’s your mind but also your rootedness, he would say. As she cried with the love coursing through her, too strong to be nurturing, ripping her apart with the force of a storm. Ripping her out of the earth from those same roots. Propelling them past one another even as they grasped.

And:

She rides home through downtown streets in heaven with earphones in and music going, even though she knows it is dangerous, wishing she could ride forever. Just before the bridge she looks up and is startled to see that she is on a collision course with a pack of runners. They are streaming down the sidewalk and then they are streaming off of it, running into the street like bullrunners for the opposite sidewalk, sprinting in plain clothes. She watches, incredulous, as they charge at her with absolute conviction, one man nearly colliding with her bike. It happens so quickly that they can only meet eyes and grin at each other, Lali swerving as the runner continues on his way.

Ooh, it hurt to cut those sections. But the story moves better without em, sadly.

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