On Writing: Killing the Biggest Darling

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings”— Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

I’m a newspaper refugee; for two decades and more my writing goal was readability (and truth and fairness and justice and all). Fancy words and phrases, even if I let them slip in, were nearly always red-lined out by my editors. My prose was hard-boiled, clear and direct. When I started writing fiction, I thought I would never fall into the trap of holding my darling words and phrases tight, wrecking the flow of the story just to hold up my rococo phrases trumpeting, “Beautiful Writing Here.”

No, I fell into a bigger trap.

My first published book, A Note of Scandal, features a Regency-era newspaper publisher tempted and taunted by a viscount’s daughter who composes music. The book has a Dickensian feel: A number of secondary characters play big roles—some even have scenes in their own close POV. One is the publisher’s star reporter, a genial showboat who just seems to get people to talk with him. Of course, I fell for him, but for this book I stayed strong, cutting cut his lines and a scene when his subplot was overpowering the main story. I felt bad (but also virtuous), and by the end of the story I knew the next book would have him as hero.

Reading the histories and newspapers of the time, I found the perfect setting—not London, but Manchester—and some news-worthy events. It was 1819, four years after the first book, so my guy could be recovered from his stint as a war correspondent and finally deciding to settle down. I had two ideas for local girls who could be involved in weaving either as a worker or a lady’s aid society volunteer at the manufactories in the city, where I wanted to set the action.

By the time NaNoWriMo 2008 rolled around, I had reams of research, GMCs for everybody, four tent-pole scenes and a half-dozen other scenes. But the words, they did not flow.

Every scene fell apart as soon as I started really writing it. I plowed on, bewildered but relentless, and got to the end of the story. I had 35,000 words—less than half my target. It wasn’t until those final scenes, when all hell breaks out in the story, that I realized what was wrong. My guy, my beautiful, funny, great hero, was letting me down.

I had been blind: Reporters report: They observe; they don’t act. My hero was a passive presence, he wasn’t affected by the raucous political punches and counterpunches, and his parts were somnolent on the page. I needed a man (and a woman) whose actions changed the story and who were changed by events, again and again. A reporter might be good for a mystery story (like All the President’s Men), but mine was a runaway train story. He had to go.

Of course, I fought this idea. He was the star! He was the whole reason I wanted to write this story! I may have drunk too much wine and lay on the couch one spring night wracking my brain on to save my guy. But in the end, the story world I’d built was more attractive than this one guy.

I found a new hero, one who juggles demands of his Earl brother, his warehouse workers, and his new wife, who seems a little too sympathetic to the cries of the weavers and spinners for reform. I could not give up on my poor reporter, but in every draft his part got smaller and smaller. In the finished book, he has only a few lines.

This change necessitated other major changes, as well. My lady’s background did not change, but her present situation did—radically. Her journey grew a lot darker, so the decision she makes at her crisis point would make sense. This messed with the structure, and it took me until NaNo 2009 before I thought I had it solid. During that November, I wrote 87,000 words, and kept rolling. I sold An Untitled Lady in November 2012 and it was released last week.

My new guy, Nash, isn’t always a sweet talker, or good with the ladies, but he’s gutsy and I think he’s still a cutie (well, one reviewer did describe him as a teddy bear but with wood chips inside instead of fluff). This story is not your traditional regency; in addition to romance, castles, and picnics, it has fights, sex, slums, and protest marches. It’s ambitious; not a comfort read but a satisfying meal.

I still can’t quit this reporter guy. His image is still on my bulletin board. And now I’ve found chewy piece of history from 1808, so he’d by 11 years younger and wet behind the ears. And the story has the makings of a mystery, and an adventure…

[this post first appeared at SavvyAuthors]

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