Dealing With Darlings

My agent recently sent me her editorial letter for the book I’ve been working on ever since I was in diapers (the diapers part isn’t really true, but it sure feels that way).

Two years ago, I did a major rewrite on this same book. It took me  months, and made the book much better – tighter, more coherent and consistent, easier to follow, better paced. When I was done with it, I thought I was done. I mean, I thought I was done with this phase. I figured that when (God willing) someone offered to publish the thing, more revisions would be necessary. But that round would be backed up by a contract. I would have received half my advance upon signing the contract, and the second half would be due to me when I turned in the completed manuscript. That’s how it happened with my previous books, anyway.

If I knew more revisions were in store, I shouldn’t have been surprised when my wonderful, sharp-eyed, savvy agent, who has absolute faith in me as a writer, and is totally in love with this book, would not want to send the manuscript out until she knew she had done everything in her power to make it as perfect as possible.

I have been writing for most of my life, and have always been edited. I count on being edited. I come from a family of editors. I have worked as an editor, myself.

I could kiss my agent’s feet for ferreting out my typos (mostly errors that got inserted in the last set of revisions). I’m grateful for her suggestions of where I might add a phrase to make some bit of specialized terminology accessible to a general audience. I’m glad to have pointed out to me that I over-use a certain sentence structure. And about those places where she says I need to clarify the point of view? Well, yeah. I knew that was coming. I just hoped I could land a contract first, and then make the fixes.

And yet. Her editorial letter (kind, encouraging, reasonable) arrived in my inbox like a fist to my solar plexus. Why? Because of my darlings.

“Kill your darlings,” Stephen King advises us writers. He means those bits of verbiage we fall so madly in love with that we resist removing them, even if they have no reason to stay in the story. My agent singled out two chapters that are most definitely my darlings. She didn’t say I should kill them. She even said she likes them. But she also very strongly suggested I change them.

I secretly call these chapters my “fugue chapters.” One is the funeral fugue, and the other is the unveiling fugue, describing the ritual that takes place a year after a death, when the headstone is dedicated. Throughout my book, point of view shifts from character to character. But all of the major characters are present in these two chapters. They all participate in these rituals, but bring very different perspectives to it. I wanted to convey the simultaneity of their thoughts. I wanted the sounds of their thoughts to bump up against the sounds of the boilerplate liturgy, and the sounds and sights of the damaged headstones, the airplanes flying over, the rain and the mud and the other distractions. I wanted to convey the sacredness of these two events – to show that they take the participants out of normal life, that they can’t be experienced in the normal way. I laid the chapters out like poetry, cutting and splicing the different trains of thought and interweaving them with the words of the prayers to create interesting, accidentally-on-purpose juxtapositions, contrasts, images, alliterations and rhymes.

Years ago, I staged a public reading of an earlier version of the funeral fugue. Six friends participated, each one reading the point of view of a different character. It was awesome. The audience couldn’t necessarily follow every detail (especially since it was out of context), but they could definitely feel the mood I was trying to convey.

Of course, because I had six difference voices, they could distinguish the different voices in the text. The trouble is, I’m writing this book for the page, not the stage. And it’s not a poem, but a novel, in which the reader wants to be pulled forward and find out what happens. And the trippy kaleidoscopic composition is just too hard to follow. I want the reader to slow down. It’s okay if they feel challenged. But they need to be able to meet the challenge. I don’t want them to give up and stop reading.

So, what to do?  Fire my agent? Ignore her advice? Rewrite those two chapters so they’re just like the rest of the book?

My solution: Take a deep breath, wait for the pain to subside (it took two days), and then look at the chapters, and figure out why I’m so attached to them (the fact that I wrote them, and that they came to me spontaneously, doesn’t count). Then find a way to create the effect I’m after without losing the reader.

Back in college, I studied linguistics and literature. I used linguistics to analyze literary style. What makes Hemingway sound like Hemingway? The usual answer is something like that he writes in short sentences. But if you analyze his writing, it turns out that he doesn’t really. He writes short sentences in key places, like the beginnings and endings of paragraphs. In between, he writes sentences of all different lengths. If he wrote the same length of sentence over and over again, his stories would be really tedious to read.

The take-away for me is that a little bit of a cool stylistic effect can go a long way. That will be my watch word as I revise my fugue chapters. I’ll figure out how to be judicious with my juxtapositions, how to pace and place my special effects so they’re effective, but don’t undermine what I’m trying to say.

I love these darlings. But I love the book they’re part of even more. 

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3 Responses to “Dealing With Darlings”

  1. rhondasaunders Says:

    Right there with you, but in a middle grade fiction sort of way. Linda has a good eye (two, actually).

  2. Alison Bechdel Says:

    As someone who both read the prose version and heard the performed one, it’s interesting to hear about your process with the fugue scene. I’m sorry about your darlings but I guess if they gotta go, they gotta go.

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