So, a phrase you may have heard echoing about now and then is “killing your babies.” It’s just as gruesome as it sounds. Honest. I just heard it from a friend of mine a few weeks ago as he gutted the opening of a script he’s been working on for almost a year. One fellow brought it up when I interviewed him last week about his new film.
Many folk have heard the phrase, but how many understand it?
In every piece of writing, there’s at least one thing the author is extremely proud of. A clever line of dialogue, a character nuance, a dramatic moment or reveal that just could not be any better. We’ve all had them. A place where the language and the creativity and the skill all hit that perfect point where it’s hard to believe we created something this good. I usually fret over them for hours, convinced I must’ve read it somewhere else before and unintentionally copied it. After all, there’s no way I could’ve written something that good...
Perhaps it’s not even necessarily high art, just something the writer’s very fond of. Maybe it’s a clever reference you know a handful of friends will get. A loving tribute to someone special. A sly wink at some other book or movie. Heck, it could even just be something silly and pointless the writer got obsessive about. As a not-so-wise man once said, “the alien love-child stays in no matter what!”
The problem is, while these bits often are very well-done within their own limits, they don’t always work in the larger scope of things. As a writer, your loyalty has to be to the big picture. Not to individual scenes, but to the story as a whole. We’ve all heard awful cases where firefighters have to cut off someone’s leg to save them from a burning wreck. History tells of us brave generals who lost battles so they could win the war.
Y’see, Timmy, what it comes down to is... writers need to make sacrifices sometimes. And the gods of storytelling are ancient, dark gods. So when they call for a sacrifice, they don’t want to see a small tithe or minor inconvenience. They want something big.
They want something you love.
Submitted for your approval is San Diego Police Officer Andrew Barroll. He was one of the supporting characters in my oft-exampled first attempt at a novel The Suffering Map (now on sale absolutely nowhere). He first appears in a flashback one character has as a uniform officer she met almost a year ago. Halfway through the book he reappears, now a detective assigned to investigate the series of horrifically mutilated corpses that are being discovered around San Diego because of... well, let’s just say it’s part of the story and leave it at that. For the second half of the book, five different plot threads are getting wound tighter and tighter, and Barroll and his partner get closer to discovering who’s committing the brutal murders. He was the good cop. The solid, dedicated, everyman character. The kind of character where you knew he’d just have to get a bigger part to play in a later book.
Alas, the first draft of The Suffering Map was just over 150,000 words. Somewhat huge for a first novel from an unknown, completely uncredited writer. The second draft was even longer. It wasn’t until the third draft that I began to snip those words I thought might be excessive, and it wasn’t until the 4th draft that those cuts were noticeable.
In the fifth draft, a little over 90% of Barroll’s thread of the story vanished.
I remember feeling a dreadful churning in my stomach as I was highlighting and deleting entire chapters out of my first completed novel. A great end-of-the-chapter button vanished. Two carefully thought-out characters ceased to exist altogether. If you worked it out time-wise, probably about eight weeks of writing was deleted over the course of half an hour. Freddy Krueger aspires to be the slasher I was that afternoon. It took a few days of work to patch up the loose ends after the slaughter.
That’s what “killing your babies” means. It means doing things you hate to do. It’s when you’re willing to take huge swaths of your writing, hours and hours of work, and send them to the bin for a tighter, stronger story. You do what needs to be done, even if it means trashing your absolute, favorite part.
Alas, some folks just can’t bring themselves to make these big sacrifices. They can’t bear the thought of omitting the character they based off their high school sweetheart, refuse to admit the story doesn’t need that brilliant monologue on capitalism, and can’t figure out why the beautiful seven page description of a forest brings their story toa crashing halt. Which is a shame, because it’s the only way someone’s writing can get stronger. If you can’t look at your work objectively and see the difference between what needs to be in there and what you want to be in there, you don’t have any chance at improving.
In the end, detective Barroll appeared in one chapter of The Suffering Map. A morgue scene as the body is examined and a gruesome clue is revealed, more for the readers than for the investigators. That’s it.
And, while it pains me to this day, the story is much stronger for it.
Next time, I'd like to talk a little bit about basic concepts.
Until then... get back to writing.