Mad For Middle Grade: Killing Your Darlings

Inspired by the Lucky 13′s “Meanwhile… Middle Grade” series, we the MG authors of 2014 have banded together to create an unstoppable league of superheroes… or… erm… we decided to create a similar series. Welcome to MAD FOR MIDDLE GRADE!  We’ll be here the first Monday of every month! Stay tuned as we discuss the process of middle grade writing, chat about our favorite middle grade books, introduce our own middle grade titles, interview middle grade professionals, and generally obsess over everything middle grade! And if there’s any middle grade topic you’re interested in, we’d love to hear it in the comments!

This week we’re talking about revising and—as the expression goes—killing your darlings. Sometimes, deleting words is extraordinarily tough, and we’ve all been there. So if you need advice, if you’re looking for a bunch of authors to commiserate with, or if you are ready to ax some words, then this post is for you. Just repeat after me: HELLO, MY NAME IS INIGO MONTOYA. YOU KILLED MY MANUSCRIPT. PREPARE TO DIE.

Question: What was your revision process like, and what are some tips for killing your darlings?

Rebecca Behrens
WHEN AUDREY MET ALICE
Sourcebooks

IMG_6512For me, revising a manuscript is a unique process with every story (and every pass). But these all-purpose tricks help me through every revision:

—Wordle it: Make a word cloud out of your manuscript, using Wordle or Tagxedo. Do you find that some filler words, such as “like,” “just,” “said,” are huge in your cloud? Use the find function to go through your MS and cut those words whenever they aren’t truly necessary.

—Chunk it: Break up your MS into three to seven “chunks.” Put the text for each into its own, fresh document. Revise each as its own entity. Then weave them back together. Sometimes it’s a lot less daunting to face a twenty-five page section of text rather than the whole thing.

—Reverse it: I often get revision fatigue when I hit the second half of the story. I start letting things slide as my energy and creativity dwindles. So sometimes I’ll start revising backward, moving from the last chapter to the first. This also helps me read the text with as close to “fresh” eyes as possible.

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Michelle Schusterman
I HEART BAND
Grosset & Dunlap/Penguin

Michelle-Author-2Best way to kill your darlings? Crash your hard drive and lose it all.

That’s not sarcasm…well, maybe a little. But a month ago, right before I was about to start on a pretty major revision, my drive crashed. I didn’t lose my draft of the book, but I DID lose dozens of documents filled with darlings: sentences I loved for the prose but which didn’t fit the new draft, ideas and scenes that didn’t make sense in this new version of the story, backstory that didn’t belong to the characters anymore.

I remembered a lot of it, of course. But not having all those darlings staring me in the face really helped me let go. The result was what I feel like has been my most effective revision to date. So while you might not want to literally lose all that stuff, try revising with a blank document and keep all of your previous research and drafts closed. (And back up your work, kids. Safety first.)

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Ryan Gebhart
THERE WILL BE BEARS
Candlewick Press

OneFourMeI think the revision process is a pretty personal thing and no matter how much advice someone gives you, in the end you just have to discover what works best for you. With that being said, here’s some advice: be patient. If you’ve written a book you’re really proud of, really give it time it to fully mature. Once you think it’s perfect, enlist beta readers to prove you wrong. Then take the suggestions that ring true to you and at least consider the ones that challenge your vision. Lather, rinse, rewrite.

I wrote my novel in three weeks. I revised it for three years. Great ideas sometimes become great novels in no time at all. But if you’re like the majority of writers, great ideas need time and revision and assistance to become truly great stories.

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Skila Brown
CAMINAR
Candlewick Press

Skila BrownI don’t kill my darlings. I just cryogenically freeze them. When I know I need to get rid of something that I happen to be pretty fond of, I simply cut and paste it into a document called “save for later.” Later usually never happens…but mentally this does the trick and lets me hack away without the pain.

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Tracy Holczer
THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY
Putnam/Penguin

NIK_5082CROPFor killing the darlings—I pasted them into a separate document so it didn’t feel so final. But I found myself going back to that document and finding the perfect words for a different part of the story. Sometimes I think our brains work like that, uncovering little tidbits, only we don’t have a place for them yet. I know that isn’t exactly a tip for killing the darlings, but I’m against the death penalty anyway.

As far as revision goes, my process is macro to micro. I make sure there is a clear beginning, middle and end, marking each of those sections. Do they do their job? If not, why? Breaking it down further—does each scene have a purpose in terms of furthering plot, character and conflict? Is there a rise and fall to the scene/section? Do the stakes rise consistently? Do the characters all have enough backstory to make them whole whether or not that story is on the page?

Rinse and repeat a gazillion times.

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Rachel Searles
THE LOST PLANET
Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan

Rsearles-squareMy revision process? Slow and painful. I often need a running start to get into the revision groove, so I’ll start reading 2-3 chapters before where I want to revise, and when I (hopefully) get there, I’m in the story well enough that the parts that don’t work will stand out. Same with structural revisions: I write out a short description of each chapter (longhand, legal pad) and read through them from the start, over and over, with an eye for where any holes in the story might be, where a theme or question might have gotten dropped, and most importantly if I’m getting the pacing right. (Most enlightening critique I ever got: “I found myself waiting for something to happen for much of the first 50 pages.” Um, oops.)

As for killing your darlings, don’t sweat it. You will write new darlings—don’t let them stop you from cutting out a chunk of story that’s not working.

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Gayle Rosengren
WHAT THE MOON SAID
Putnam/Penguin

Gayle Rosengren 100x100My revision process may have been a little different than most, because I don’t have an agent. I met my editor at a writers conference and she fell in love with my main character. The story itself was a bit too “quiet,” though, so she made a suggestion and said if I decided to follow up on it she’d love to have another look at the manuscript. Needless to say, I followed her advice and immediately saw how the tension was heightened. The editor agreed, and the result was a contract!

But this is not to say that I hadn’t already done a lot of revising to this manuscript before my editor first saw it. I had acted on feedback from the members of my writing group. And before I showed it to my writing group—one chapter at a time—I had done a lot of self-editing and—you guessed it—revising.

Revising should be viewed as a natural part of the writing process, no matter if it takes place early on or at the end. It’s the polishing of scenes and sentences that ultimately will make your gem of a story glow its brightest.

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Patrick Samphire
SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB
Christy Ottaviano Books/Macmillan

patrick-samphire-largeI feel about my ‘writing darlings’ much the same as I feel about my old leather jacket from when I was eighteen: scruffy, doesn’t fit, probably should be gone, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be me without it.

You see, I think ‘kill your darlings’ is simultaneously both the best and worst advice for an author. If a scene or description or bit of plot or dialogue is making your novel manifestly worse, it has to go, no matter how much you love it. But if you take out all those quirky little asides and features, your book will be bland and characterless, and no one will care. So, kill some darlings, cherish others, even if they’re not functional. The trick is working out which.

And two quick tips:

If you’re revising a section and you just can’t make it work, cut it completely. Your book will almost always be better without it.

When you’ve done all the other revising and you think your book is ready, go through it and remove 10% of the words. When you make this a target, you’ll be surprised at how many excess words you’ve stuffed in.

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Robin Herrera
HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL
Amulet Books

imageMy revision process is kind of boring. For HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL I made a list of all the chapters and why they were important. For a lot of them, I couldn’t think of why they were important. So I deleted them!

It was very sad. I held a funeral for all the parts I’d cut. (No I didn’t.) Then I took the chapters I had left and stitched them back into something resembling a story. That’s the version that got me my agent!

After that, I did a lot more revising. My main character was too passive, so that had to change. It was hard, because the previous draft had been so dependent on her being passive. BUT NOBODY LIKES TO READ ABOUT PASSIVE CHARACTERS! I have that tattooed on my brain now, for future books.

AND SO SHOULD YOU.

As for killing darlings, just steel yourself. Take a deep breath. Say, “I’m sorry you were dead weight.” Hit the delete button. Repeat a hundred times.

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Lauren Magaziner
THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN WITCHES
Dial/Penguin

Lauren MagazinerMy revising secret? Read your entire book aloud. Seriously. Do it. And thank me later.

I find that when I read aloud, I’m able to hear where sentences are awkward, clunky, or not flowing well with the rest of the paragraph because I’ll get tripped up and tongue-tied on the wordy parts. Reading aloud also really helps me to slow down and take each line one at a time.

This technique also works with big edits too, not just line-edits! Sometimes, I pretend I’m Teacher Lauren reading my book to Fourth-grade Lauren. If Fourth-grade Lauren gets distracted or tries to pull up the Internet or starts thinking about snack time or does anything except be totally and completely absorbed in the scene, that’s Writer Lauren’s cue to tighten the chapter, amp up the tension, or figure out if the scene is misplaced chronologically.

Added perk of reading aloud? You’ll sound like a muttering, raving lunatic. Every writer’s dream come true!

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Do any of these revision tips resonate with you? Do you have any special revision strategies that we haven’t mentioned? Let us know in the comments!

Have a great rest of summer, and stay cool (both figuratively and literally). We’ll see you again on Monday, September 2nd… aka Labor Day!

Lauren Magaziner is a 4th grader at heart, watches way too much TV, and loves to steal people’s toes to make Toecorn, which tastes like chewy, meaty popcorn. Only one of those is true. (Okay… you caught me. They’re all true.) Her MG debut THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN WITCHES—about a boy who becomes a witchling’s apprentice in a town full of dangerous, Toecorn-loving witches—is forthcoming from Dial/Penguin in Summer 2014.
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2 thoughts on “Mad For Middle Grade: Killing Your Darlings

  1. Reading your manuscript out loud and using Wordle works wonders. I also like to send my MS to my Kindle and let it play using the text to speech tool. Sometimes if I know a passage well, I’ll skip over it but I usually catch it with the Kindle 🙂 Great post!

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