Kill Your Darlings

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Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music.

ASK THE AUTHOR: From lanie Peterson via aarongansky.com: What’s the best way to promote your book–press releases, book signings, a party (a book signing and potluck dinner)?

AARON: This is an excellent question. To keep it simple, the answer is “yes.”

Everything you mentioned is fantastic. I want to be completely honest and transparent here, though. I don’t do much in the way of “book releases.” I’m pretty busy, and to be bold, I’m not a people-person. I get uncomfortable in large crowds. But if it’s just some friends and family, a potluck is an awesome idea! I’ve done book signings at my local Barnes and Noble. I’ve done Facebook “launch” parties where I give out prizes and ask trivia and talk about “behind the scenes” kind of stuff. The advantage to doing it digitally is that people from all over can “attend” virtually, and travel isn’t a consideration. Plus, they can do it in their jammies while cooking dinner. That’s how I roll, at least. If you can get a press release in your local paper, that’d be pretty fantastic, too. I’d try to connect with local writer’s groups and let them know. Try to do some targeted marketing. Sometimes you can even get an interview with your local paper. I’ve done a TV spot on a local talk show (which is now defunct, sadly), and some national radio spots as well that had a weekly book feature. Another thing you can do is readings. Talk to your local libraries and book stores. See if you can set that up. I often will talk with schools and I sell a few books when I do.

POPS: Aaron’s suggestions are solid. The difficult truth is this: There is no proven marketing technique. And more and more, publishers are asking the author to be the marketer-and-chief. The best marketing is word of mouth. Of course, that’s a bit of a conundrum. How does one get word of mouth if no one is buying the book? Even paid advertising often doesn’t work. If your novel has a unique approach or a gripping subject, the radio interviews are good. You go in selling, not your book, but some information listeners will find fascinating. In the course of the interview you mention your book several times. Social media is going to be the best Phase 1 marketing you can do. This means building an audience. So, in addition to writing your next book, working, parenting, and other pressing matters, you have to develop a social media market. There’s no certainty that it will work, but some bestsellers started on the web.

Firsts in Fiction

EDITING: KILL YOUR DARLINGS

There are several bits of wisdom, aphorisms, if you will, about writing that have been bandied about, often referenced in Creative Writing classes across the country, even the world. Among these, one of the hardest to swallow is “kill your darlings.” Most attribute the quote to Faulkner, but others credit Twain. Either way, the wisdom remains sound. In his book On Writing, Stephen King wrote, ““Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

So what is a “darling?” Simply put, it’s a bit of writing that you love. That said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “darlings.” There are several passages that I’ve written that I would call a “darling,” and they often make it into the final drafts of my novels. The issue is when they don’t, as we say in the business, “earn their place” in the story.

The idea is simple: just because you love something you’ve written, doesn’t mean everyone else will love it as much as you do. In fact, oft times, it has the opposite effect. This is not to say that you must murder every passage of writing you’ve penned for which you feel affection. More precisely, what we need to do is eliminate ruthlessly anything that doesn’t further or add to our story.

So how do we know if our darling “earns it’s place?” (a term that means, simply put, that it does one of the following things:

1) Introduce tension or conflict: The primary element of fiction is conflict (or tension—that is, the feeling that something horrible might happen). Without tension or conflict, we have no scene. Or the scene drags. That is to say, we’re boring our reader. Each scene should contribute in some way to the primary tension or conflict. If not, it’s not furthering our story, and must be done away with. This is why long passages of flowery description generally only work when bookended by tension. The passage then prolongs the conflict, and thereby increases the tension. However, long descriptions with no tension = boring, generally speaking, and must be cut, no matter how much you love it.

Al: Another term is “suspense.” Suspense is what the reader feels as he or she is reading. Fiction is a journey for the reader. Tension keeps the reader turning the page. Alfred Hitchcock said that showing two people in a restaurant and a bomb goes off is not suspense. Showing someone place a bomb under one of the restaurant’s tables and letting the action continue for awhile is suspense. The reader (the viewer in Hitchcock’s case) knows the thing is going to blow but not when, so they pay closer attention.

2) Introduce or develop characters: In a longer work, characters need to be developed (though tension and conflict should still be present while accomplishing this). However, the level of conflict and tension can be less here, especially in scenes where one character meets the other, and we get to see their initial impression of the newcomer. This works best when that impression is later proved wrong, or must be amended (see, that creates tension).

Al: How you develop your characters can go along way in creating or ratcheting up tension and action. I once had an antagonist in a highrise hotel. He’s on the twentieth floor, receives some bad news, and goes nuts. He tears up the room, strips naked, goes onto the balcony, climbs onto the railing and sits with his feet dangling a couple hundred feet above the ground. Why do this, because I wanted the reader to know just how crazy this guy is. The reader knows that sooner or later, my timid hero and antagonist are going to face off. They just don’t know how or when.

3) Resolve tension or conflict: Tension and conflict must both be resolved (or established that they will not be resolved, which is, in itself, a type of resolution). In a work with multiple tensions and conflicts (the quest stories, adventure plots, saving the world, even some romances), all must be resolved in some way. The resolution of these should be present in a scene.

If your scene is not doing one of the above, it should be eliminated, no matter how beautiful the writing.

Al: I’ve taught these principles this way: “If your scene doesn’t not 1) further the story, 2) define a major character, or 3) set up action to come, then get rid of it. Al’s Axiom #55: “Fluff is great for pillows but deadly to fiction.”

So what do you do with your darlings once they’re dead? Killing your darlings does not mean that you must murder them and bury the bodies. In many cases, you might be able to breathe new life into the passages you love most. Try some of these strategies:

1) Save it for a different story: It may not earn it’s place in your novel, but maybe it can be reworked into a different setting, one with a different conflict and/or tension.

Al: I had to do this once to reduce the size of a novel I had written. I saved the scenes I cut. A couple I used in a different book.

2) Work it in somewhere else: Maybe the scene would work better after the conflict/tension has already been established. It may work as a lull, a calm-before-the-storm type of moment.

3) Turn it into its own work: Perhaps the tension you’ve established in your scene never fully develops. Perhaps you’ve started a thread of tension that you’d planned to orchestrate with the larger story, but it never happened. Why not take it and turn it into its own story, where its tension is the central thread that binds a larger work.

What are the most common “darlings” that need to be killed?

1) Long passages of flowery, unnecessary descriptions. While they are very pretty, they can be very slow, and often do little to further story.

2) Long monologs/dialogs that do not contribute. While dialog often feels like the “easiest” part of writing (because it goes so quickly), it’s, more often than not, the weakest element of our writing. With dialog, less is always more, no  matter how clever of a turn of phrase you’ve come up with.

Al: As with everything in a novel, dialog needs a purpose. It needs to do more that fill in a few pages. Dialog must meet the same guidelines mentioned earlier: move the story forward, develop a character, or set up action to come.

3) Authorial intrusions on the nature of life, etc. As a beginning writer and an English teacher, I felt the need to write with symbolism, with heavy thematic ideas running through my stories. What they translated into were passages screaming, “Aren’t I a genius! Revere me!” Which makes for terrible writing. Anytime we as writers call attention to ourselves, to our philosophies, we fail to present the story in a respectable, true way. We end up manipulating characters and situations to fit our own desires, which is a great disservices to the story that wants to be told.

Al: The best writers know how to get out of the way of the story.

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