By the Wind Grieved

By the Wind Grieved
“O lost, And by the wind grieved, Ghost, Come back again.” Thomas Wolfe

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Killing My Darlings

By now, with the release of the new movie starring Daniel Radcliffe as the pre-Howl Allen Ginsberg, many of you will be familiar with the advice given to writers to "kill your darlings." You may even desire to know who really coined that phrase, meaning to cut all self-indulgent, superfluous, if masterful passages of your magnus opus during the revision stage. If so, read the article by Forrest Wickman in the online blog of the culture and current affairs magazine Slate for the short list of suspects. As for me, it is time to take that advice to heart.

It is round two of revisions on the memoir I am ghostwriting (though perhaps that phrase is not entirely accurate as my client has told me he intends to credit my labors in the "as told to" category). If anything, getting my name on the tome only heightens my anxiety at this stage to make a decent showing.

To do that, at 120,000 + words, the current manuscript will have to deliver roughly 30,000 to 40,000 of these darlings to the knife of my delete button if I am to come out of this with a standard size memoir. I am hoping that as the book has ballooned into a full-fledged autobiography, I will be able to save some of those "babies," but it is inevitable that a trainload will have to go.

So where to start? That's easy. After targeting the obvious — adverbs, superfluous adjectives, and overuse of the "be" verb, it's on to descriptions, similes, and metaphors. Here is a sentence in my current draft describing the Berlin airlift of 1948, the final simile of which I have cut/replaced/cut/replaced a dozen times:

Today you can see film clips from this era, and it is stirring to see those images of the planes flying in low, of the dozens of white parachutes pouring from the open hatch like moths from a hollow.

I cannot quite let go of those moths.

Here is a longer one describing first impressions of the American Southwest by immigrants traveling overland on a train in the 1950s:

The wide open spaces grew closer together as the land folded itself up into deeply fissured sandstone columns and mesas. Deep canyons cut through rock that looked as if it had melted and then petrified, even as it flowed before rising into steep and wild spires partly covered with snow...Further on this strange and starkly beautiful landscape gave way to mountains that rose from the land like the backs of great beasts, their slopes and ever-shifting play of pale yellow, ochre, and rust...this amazing panorama of endlessly shifting shapes made all the more dramatic by that sky of scudding clouds that cast purple shadows over the land as large as the mountains. are saying by now....go write a travelogue already. Still, it is not easy to murder these pretty babies. I am fortifying myself for the job by thinking of the poor readers slogging through prose as dense as mud when I had rather have them skipping through a grassy meadow chasing butterflies.

For anyone interested in some good, succinct, down-to-earth advice on this, read Stephen King on Writing, a memoir cum writing guide he characterizes as "a kind of curriculum vitae — (an) attempt to show how one writer was formed." Here King shows us his own formula for writing good, clean, Strunk and White-approved prose. At the end he provides one of his own stories before and after revisions, followed by a list of changes he has made. He sums up his revising method and basic methodology as follows:

Most of the changes are cuts, intended to speed the story. I have cut with Strunk in mind—"Omit needless words"—and also to satisfy the formula stated earlier: 2nd draft = 1st draft — 10%.

I also cannot recommend enough the oft-mentioned William Zinsser's On Writing Well. Like King, Zinsser recommends economy:

Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn't be there.

With that advice in mind, it's back to my own revising now. Next time I will share the step-by-step revision checklist I am using to kill my own little darlings.


  1. The revision part of any writing is what I dread the most, as do students who need to revise their essays. When I read an author’s collection of words, I am taken in with how detailed and descriptive they are...not thinking about the many hours they spent “killing their darlings.”

    I certainly cannot say I envy you in this task. It will be such an elation when you open the book fresh off the press, smell the ink as you read your well picked words, the ones you were able to save. Then, you can say, “It was all worth it.”

    1. Yes! I couldn't help but think of students when writing this. And you are so right...the problem with really good writers is that they have done their revisions so well (on top of great writing to begin with) that it all looks effortless as we read the final product.Can't wait for that moment either when I am done slaughtering the draft.

  2. Jeanne, just spent an hour with you...and I feel the knife pricks for you...thanks for the great blog; I learn from it. All I can do is encourage. I am excited for you and your client, that you have come so far already. What a great journey!

  3. Wow...can't ask for a better tribute for my little effort here--a whole hour. Since the idea of doing this is to hopefully pass on what I am learning throughout this process, I couldn't be more gratified! Thanks for commenting.