The Great Cut: A Death to Darlings


This is my fourth post on novel revision. The goal: cut 50,000 words from my 172,000 word fantasy novel to make it a marketable piece of fiction.

Chuck Sambuchino wrote, “The heart writes the first draft, but the head writes the second–and that means critical editing, where darlings will be killed.”

When I began my revision journey, my heart told me that cutting 50,000 words would be nearly impossible. It’s good the way it is. I just need to find the right person to read it. That’s your heart talking.

It’s easy to get trapped there. Now that I’ve cut 23,000 words, I think the hardest part was starting. To my heart’s surprise, I think the novel is actually getting better.

Literary darlings come in many forms.  They can be descriptions, dialogue or backstory. Their shared commonality is that they stand apart from the plot.

For me, character backstory is the most difficult to cut. In the example below, one of my characters describes how his brother was taken by a monster as a child. The conversation didn’t serve the greater plot but I believe it did provide a little more depth to the character.

Atellus leaned back against a tree and scratched his chin. “What about you Atius? Have you lost anyone?”

Atius looked into the fire. “When I was a boy, my older brother Albus was taken.”

“By those rat-things?” Gurges asked.

Atius shook his head. “No, something worse.

“When we were children, we used to play by the Old Kingdom’s gate. As some of you have seen, the gate is made up of an outer iron grating followed by a short corridor and closed off at the end by a set of oak doors. Back then, the doors weren’t fortified and a corner of one of them had rotted away making an opening to the city. It was a game of ours to see how close we could get to the doors before running away.

“One day, we were playing our usual games but Albus didn’t run away. He just stood there in the vault staring at the hole in the door.

“I asked him what he was doing and he said he heard someone crying inside. I thought he was just joking or trying to scare me.”

Atius became silent and Gurges spit a chunk of goat fat into the fire that sizzled. “Come on. I want to hear the rest.”

“Albus went inside. I remember him saying how quiet it was in the city. I was too afraid to remember what else he said.

“He disappeared behind the door and poked his head back through a moment later with a fat grin. I cursed at him for scaring me. He was coming back through the hole when something caught his attention.

“‘Wait here, little brother. I do hear someone crying,’” he said to me.

“I begged him to come back, but he didn’t—he never did. I waited there till sunset calling out for him. It was only when I finally decided to run home I heard it. Crying. Just beyond the door. It sounded like my brother but in my heart I knew it wasn’t. And I ran faster than I ever ran before.”

“You never saw the monster?” asked Licinius.

Atius looked into the woods. “Not that night. But when I was older I saw something in these woods. The Gods must have favored me that night because I fell asleep on watch and was awoken by a twig breaking. I didn’t see all of the beast but I saw enough. Its head was like a wolf’s with yellow eyes that glowed in the dark.”




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