How to Murder. (Your darlings.) (In prose.)

We’ve all heard the advice to writers to “murder your darlings”. While I’ve been killing characters in entertainingly gruesome ways, the advice relates to prose.

I’ve recently went through an extensive exercise of tightening my prose (for a particular submission), and thought I’d share my experience and lessons I’ve learned — both good and bad, together with practical advice on how to handle this.


I’ve blogged about the Honourable Mention I got for Girl On Fire in the Writers of the Future context. For my next submission I decided on Aquae et Ignis, as a good piece of my writing, encompassing all the elements of the world of Egretia and the Togas, Daggers, and Magic stories.

Problem was, the novella is 21.5K words, and submissions to the contest are capped at 17K. In order to make it fit, I had to take a very critical look at my writing.

Killing spree

First to go were the author notes, of course. That cut about 1K words. I started to read through and use more contractions or tighten phrasing (more on that later), but it was clear that by itself it wouldn’t be enough. So some bigger things had to go.

An easy kill was the scene with Sosius. It’s a nice piece, that ties in with the usual flavour of Felix’s investigations and stresses the Graeco-Roman mythical background. But when push comes to shove (or the delete button comes to the manuscript), it was something that was not advancing the plot and could be done without. That was just under 1K words.

I toyed with moving it from Egretia to Rome, but decided that ultimately it won’t save much words. I’d have just the same need to show culture and geography. I cut the pirate treasure at the end (Felix still gets paid a bonus), cut down some explanations of the workings of magia (less important in an independent short story, which has a different aim and audience than a novella set as part of a series), and a few other minor bits like that.

But it wasn’t enough.

Unfortunately that meant Borax. Though he doesn’t have many lines, he’s one of the readers’ favourite side characters. I also really liked the bit when they jibe each other about the races – it humanises both, and gives flavour to the world. But ultimately, spread over the manuscript, that was again almost another 1K words that could be done without. If I had more space, I would have loved to include it, but it just wasn’t meant to be. RIP Borax – perhaps take it as a vacation before the next big case.

That brought it to a point where working on the prose was realistic to cut it down to the required limit. Though I describe it as a two step process, I’ve actually done it during multiple read-through passes of the document. But it bears noting that cutting scenes and characters/sub-plots has a dramatic effect far beyond that of futzing with words.

Tightening prose

Which brings me to the next section, that of looking at words and parts of sentences. Again, there were some good and bad outcomes here, all in the name of getting it under the target word count.

The good

Stronger adjectives: there were definite cases where I replaced two-three words with a single one that better described the situation. No, this was’t omitting ‘very’ and its ilk (I’m wary enough of that during writing), but there were cases where I could shade the meaning better with a single word.

Less hedging / filtering: I usually try to cut them out, but there are always some that remains. I thought that to a degree it’s Felix’s ‘voice’ (because, like most shifty characters, he doesn’t like to commit himself) — but that was a lie I was telling myself. He can still be noncommittal with less words, and more often than not the story can do without them entirely. A lesson learnt, that leads to more dynamic writing. (Hopefully it sunk deep enough that I’ll be able to do it while drafting).

A side note would be about factual (or semi-factual) items that you notice after reading the work ten times. I fixed a few — but I doubt anyone would ever notice them. e.g. I used Zephyrus when they were sailing west — but Zephyrus is the West Wind, i.e. coming from the west. I should have used Eurus, but since that gets confusing (trust me here), I went with Aeolus, the overall gods of winds.

There were a few other similar cases, but there is certainly a point of diminishing returns. It matters to almost no one when compared to the story overall, and it’s always better to stop polishing the work at some point and move on to writing the next.

The bad

One of the obvious ways to cut words is to use more contractions. I use them sparingly in my writing and almost always just in speech, as a matter of personal preference. I find it easier to read “I would have liked” than “I’d’ve liked”. Happily, I didn’t need to get down to that level, but quite a few “would” and “have” got chopped to a simple ‘d and ‘ve.

Oh well.

Lessons & Advice

This is what I’ve learnt, and how I think I would approach it next time.

Scenes, characters, and sub-plots

Like they say, every sentence should advance the story, and ideally do more than one thing. I think this is critical, especially in a short work. While in a novel I can spare a scene to just set the flavour of the world, it works so much better when scenes, snippets, dialogues, do more than one thing — set the flavour of the world, but also show a character trait (in how the perceive this flavour), or show a fight that also explains magic, etc.

This is definitely something I’d be looking at in future writing. Every sentence should justify its existence, and preferably with more than one reason.

Prose

Using stronger words (adjectives etc.) is definitely a plus. Most articles on the web give trivial examples, like changing “very good” to “excellent”. But I don’t use ‘very’, is the common rebuttal. Well, you and I don’t — but that doesn’t mean there are other, subtle cases where you and I can improve our writing. I found enough, and will make sure I look for them in the future.

As for contractions, I’d only use that when I have to work for a specific word limit. It’s a matter of personal preference.

Also, no matter how many times you proof a manuscript, giving it a month and then reading it again will uncover more typos and things you see you need to fix. Don’t get upset about it: it’s not humanly possible to be completely error free. There are drastically diminishing returns after a certain point. Just fix them and reissue the book’s next ‘print run’.

Last words

I hope you learnt something useful from this article. I know I had from this exercise, and I think my understanding of the editing process (and therefore, by extension, my skills as an author), have improved from this exercise. I don’t know if it would have had the same impact, if I wasn’t forced to work to a hard word-count goal — it would have been too easy to skip, and not take as hard a look at every bit of writing.

If you are going to try this at home, I’d suggest that you do set yourself a hard limit, and be ruthless about reaching it. Mine was roughly cutting roughly 20% of the novella, which was very ambitious — and therefore forced me not to fluff about, and be very critical. It’s only when you have the really hard choices that you can truly see what needs to stay and what can go. It could be educational, even if you’re not working for a particular submission or will end up not reaching your target count. At least you gave it an exhaustive scrutiny.

For those dedicated Felix fans who read Aquae et Ignis, if you’re curious about the result feel free to contact me and I’ll send you my submission. I’ll be more than happy to discuss the process and the story. (And if you haven’t read Aquae et Ignis — remember it’s free! Go and get a copy now.)

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