Posted by: Alastair Rosie | June 20, 2012

Killing Your Babies – Ethical Editing.


When I first started hearing the term, ‘killing your babies’ in writing classes, like many others I thought it had to do with killing off characters you’d grown to love. After all, our characters become like children after months and sometimes years living with them, and like all children they need to be put in their place. But that’s a different kind of editing, one I’ll touch on in another blog.

Killing your babies is getting rid of the guff, the wordy passages that we writers have grown to love and we kid ourselves that these passages are crucial to the life of the book. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are literally hundreds of thousands of words at our disposal and the English language is famed and lamented for being able to use the same word to mean different things.

This has come to light recently whilst going through the final proofread for The Deepening Dark, an epic fantasy novel I finished last year. It’s quite a long book at over two hundred thousand words and so I’m keen to cut down on overall word length without destroying a year of hard work.

Take the following passage.

‘Shauna was the other war leader in a village, which boasted fifty she bears, a disproportionate amount considering the population. It had a lot to do with Rhianna’s open patronage of the cult, in Haydutia they had her personal support. Shauna had taken all the Hawkmoon she bears and the bands from the villages around the lake, a total of one hundred. Her parting words brought a smile to Rhianna’s lips.’

Here I want to make it clear that Shauna, the village leader for the local she bear cult has a great deal of influence, battle experience which will is sorely needed now the village is under threat. I also want to make it clear that like Kilian, who was mentioned in the previous paragraph, she has gone to do Rhianna’s bidding.

What we have to do now is look at what we can delete and what has to stay in. I’ve already told the reader about the she bear cult earlier in the chapter, and I’ve also made it clear that Rhianna is the people’s queen. So let’s play with this a little and see what comes out.

‘Her mind turned to Shauna, the mother bear for the village she bears. She too had joined Kilian on the grasslands gathering a greater number of she bears from surrounding villagers. Her parting words still rang in her ears.’

The first passage gives us more information but that will be provided later in the book and some has already been mentioned. The important thing we need to stress is that Rhianna is alone with a handful of warriors against a few hundred cavalry. She’s in trouble. The first passage is 71 words, the second rewritten one is 39. Not a bad start.

When deciding on which ‘babies’ to kill off keep these points in mind.

Does the passage move the story forward or is this a chance to go tiptoeing through the tulips? Detours have their place but too often we have a habit of showing off our world to the reader. We want to show them the scenery, what’s going on inside a character’s head, a flashback into their past, a funny anecdote. But does the passage move the story forward or cause the reader to grit their teeth and think of checking their Facebook page?

Would the story be better without the passage or with a rewritten shorter version. One example that springs to mind is the tendency of some thriller writers who describe their hero holding an MP5K submachine gun. They tell us the calibre, range, the rate of fire, the kind of sight and ALL the optional extras. That information takes up valuable word space and at worst is self indulgence. Say he held a 9mm submachine gun and leave it at that. We get the picture, build a bridge and move on. On the other hand describing a woman’s outfit in great detail might work if she works in fashion or is getting dressed for an important occasion, one that leads to a mini climax. But detailed descriptions every time won’t work for the most part unless you’re writing romance for Mills and Boon.

The great thing about killing your babies is once you get past the first few you find the courage to look at your work through fresh eyes. Take it from someone who kept some of his babies in The Boston Slasher alive and kicking, they’re still kicking me today four years after the book was published. You don’t need to become obsessive about it but don’t be afraid to delete paragraphs, sentences or phrases that hold your writing back or just don’t read right. A reader should be turning the pages and only occasionally glancing at the clock, not sighing as we take them down the garden path and checking the clock.

Ultimately the choice is yours. It’s your world and your characters but when going through your Opus for what you hope is the last time, do yourself and your reader a favour and hold your babies up to the light of day. If they survive the scrutiny good and well, if not it’s time to toss them out and move on.

Happy editing!

Oh I decided to keep my second version of that first passage. It’s neater and says the same thing without bogging the reader down.

Written by Alastair Rosie


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