Should You Kill Babies?

As I write this, I’m quite proud of myself (not an abnormal state of affairs, I admit). Partially, that’s because I’m pretty pleased with the cleverness of the post title, but, mainly, it’s because I’ve finally figured out how to cut.

My first draft of Power of the Mages was 120 thousand words. My second, 130, Chapters 7 and 8 alone combined for over 12,000. In my 3rd draft, I managed to lop off almost 2,200 of those suckers, a reduction of a whopping 18%.

I attribute this newfound ability of mine to three factors:

1. I overcame my tendency to overshow. Let’s say that I had a character sitting in a chair and I needed him to exit the room, my inclination when I started writing was to show him opening the door next. One of the members of my writing group would always ask the question, “He was sitting when we last saw him. How’d he get to the door?” These comments influenced me greatly, and I ended up with, and only a slight exaggeration here, stuff like, “Character stood, walked across the room, reached a hand out for the door handle, swung the door open, and stepped out.” Now, I understand that it’s better to write, “Character left the room.” Even better still, use a short transition to show him at the next place where something important happens. It’s a tricky balance because too little information can leave the reader confused. Too much, however, is boring.
2. I became a better officer. In the beginning, I was like a young military leader heading into his first conflict. “Those are good words. I worked hard developing those words. I don’t want to see those words die.” Now, I’m more like a wizened old general. “Those words have to be sacrificed for the good of the story. Let not their deletion be in vain.”
3. I became more discerning. With experience, I developed a better understanding of what belongs in the story. If it doesn’t add anything, I throw it away.

Chapters 7 and 8 were bloated and boring. Making the cuts that I did unquestionably helped my story. Sometimes though, the decision on what to cut is tough.

In Make a Scene, Jordan Rosenfeld says that a scene has to be cut if any of the following conditions aren’t met:

• New information is introduced
• It relates to the significant situation
• It builds upon the last scene
• It involves, informs, or affects the protagonist
• It makes the reader feel more clued in
• It moves forward in time

That’s a pretty strict list. Do all my scenes meet each of those criteria? Probably not.

A famous quote, though there are many versions of it, in writing lore is that you should “kill your babies.” The thinking behind the quote, apparently, is that you cannot be objective about any scene that you like too much, that you consider “your baby.”

If I adhered to both the above sections of advice, I don’t think I’d have much a book left.

My babies are the parts that tend to evoke the strongest reaction. They have the potential to make people laugh or to make them cry. They’re the last scenes I want to delete.

As far as Mr. Rosenfeld goes, he’s telling me that I can’t have a relevant scene if it doesn’t apply each of those criteria? What about a well written, engrossing scene that develops character and makes the reader feel for him, but doesn’t necessarily add anything new to the plot? I have to cut it? Really?

On the other hand: Near the end of Power of the Mages, one of the characters has just carried out a covert mission and is going back to the castle. I summarized and said, basically, “He went back to the castle.” (Slightly more elegantly than that, hopefully, but that was the gist.) One of my beta readers suggested that I expand that to add more action. I responded that it would add nothing to the plot or character development.

Clearly, I believe there are limits, and I apparently draw the line at mindless action. This whole scenario got me thinking about what my true criteria are for including scenes.

My central tenets of writing are that the work should engage the reader and it should evoke an emotional response. From those tenets, I can easily derive my criteria: Cut a scene if it:

• Doesn’t engage the reader or
• Doesn’t evoke an emotional response

In my mind, mindless action for the sake of action does not truly engage the reader.

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2 thoughts on “Should You Kill Babies?

  1. Funny you should write about that (I’ve been using my “scrap” folder liberally right now). I’ve been given virtually the same advice (needing to explain when someone actually arises from his/her perch to exit the door–and Rosenfeld). The most effective way for me to “kill your babies” is to put them in a scrap file folder (given the same name as whatever book I’m writing but with SCRAP tacked onto the end). That way, I don’t feel as if I’ve killed them, just put them in an orphanage. I can retrieve them at any time and I do so on rare occasions. It may not work for anyone else, but it’s been golden for me.

  2. Good blog, Brian!

    The following is an important point that I need to learn, and the analogy made me laugh:

    “I became a better officer. In the beginning, I was like a young military leader heading into his first conflict. ‘Those are good words. I worked hard developing those words. I don’t want to see those words die.’ Now, I’m more like a wizened old general. ‘Those words have to be sacrificed for the good of the story. Let not their deletion be in vain.'”

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