In 1921 Ernest Hemingway’s wife, Hadley, lost a bag containing not only the entire manuscript of his first novel (and several short stories) but all the carbon copies as well. He fell into a deep funk and declared he’d opt for brain surgery if it could erase the memory of the loss. The pain of those lost words eventually led to his divorce from Hadley. Lost words?

A month or so ago, my publisher asked a talented local writer to pen a review of my recent novel, Blood on a Blue Moon—A Sheaffer Blue Mystery. The writer worked hard and carefully crafted a literary piece. Sadly, the publisher required more of a marketing tool than a scholarly discussion and could not—at least immediately—use the writer’s work. Now, the writer struggles to find another home for her review as she doesn’t want to waste her words. Wasted words?

I am honored and blessed to be working with two amazing mentors—J.D. Barker and Jack Remick—both are incredible writers and stellar teachers. And, both are taskmasters who have no trouble telling me to cut, cut, cut. Toss, rip out, get rid of, kill em off. Jack tells me to tighten the lines, drop words like thought, would, could. J.D. tells me to cut passages—drop entire plotlines. Geeze. Getting the word count up on my contemporary thriller is a tough job so imagine my pain when recently, between my two gurus, I had to murder about 16,000 words. Ouch. Murdered words?

We’ve all heard the advice to “kill our darlings.”  Accredited to William Faulkner, the phrase means to get rid of unnecessary words, sentences, scenes, and yes, even plot lines. And, it doesn’t matter if those are the words we love the most. No matter how lovely, how perfectly constructed, how meaningful—if sentences or paragraphs or entire scenes don’t contribute to the work as a whole, well, die they must. Or, die they should.

Sometimes we believe it’s simply too painful to slash and burn the lines we’ve so carefully written. But the sad truth is, those darlings can and probably will choke the life from the larger work. When trusted mentors, critique partners, and beta readers point out words that don’t belong, we professional writers must take a deep breath and sharpen our knives.

Painful, yes, but there is good news in all of this.

First, we can cut and save. Slash our darlings and store them away for another time. My guess? We’ll never return to them, but we can take comfort in knowing they’re not completely lost. Second, the tighter the writing, the greater chance for publication and better still, the greater the reviews—“couldn’t put it down…kept me up all night…reads like the wind!”  Finally, cleaning up our work offers an opportunity for better results. Cut the fluffy filler and drop the extra weight, and we can fly through new and stronger stories.

A woman in one of my writing groups recently lost her memoir to a computer crash. When asked if she freaked out, she shrugged and offered this bit of sage thinking: “No. Losing my work gave me a new opportunity to reorganize the material. And it’s better now.”

Fear not the killing of darlings. Bury the bodies in a digital file and embrace new clarity and freedom. You’ve got this.

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