Maggie Petru
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Killing Your Little Darlings

A couple of days ago at a critique group a friend said her art instructor had inadvertently taught her the cold, hard facts of re-writing.

“I had just finished my painting and was feeling really pleased with myself, “ she said. “The instructor asked if I thought I’d done well, then daubed thick black paint all over my beautiful canvas and ordered me to do it again - even better this time.”

While we all sympathized, she said, “The result was better the second time. That’s why I took your advice last week. You were right. This version is much livlier.”

My writing apprenticeship was different from that of my friend. I began as a journalist, allowed to work only with facts. Expressing an opinion was forbidden. As a novelist, having to invent the facts demanded a whole new mindset. Most troublesome of all - for me - is the need to inject emotions into my characters’ made–up lives. I may remember to say that my heroine is upset when her cat disappears but I’ll probably need a nudge to remember that good authors show what’s going on rather than telling it. It’s likely to take several attempts before I figure out that Betsey is standing at the window, nibbling on a cuticle, straining for a glimpse of Timmy through the pouring rain while the potatoes burn and supper is ruined.

One of my early fiction instructors used to insist that we “kill all (our) little darlings.” Those absolutely perfect little snippets that are so cute/touching/funny tend to detract from the story. Too often they are also the red herrings that point readers in the totally inappropriate direction.

Most painful of all is the re-write after a thoughtful editor has read your completed labour of love and pronounced it in need of major revisions. It took me over a year to make myself follow my first editor’s advice. Originally, Vlad was only a bumbler from whom Kate had no reason to flee. Ruth was married, having her first child, and comfortable with both her parents. Andreas loved Kate from his first appearance on page 20. My editor demanded conflict. Bend Vlad’s mind. Dump Ruth’s pointless husband and child. Drop Ruth, too, unless I developed tension between the generations. And what kind of wimp was Andreas if he couldn’t at least feel slighted that the love of his life turned out to be a two-faced traitor? Oh yes, and in passing be sure to accentuate the era because no current woman would stay with an abuser like Vladymyr Horbatsky.

As my friend said, the re-write made the story come alive.

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