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Killing Your Darlings

There comes a time in every writer’s life when they will be told: “Kill your darlings.”

It’s not an instruction to axe off your favorite characters, but rather to destroy huge chunks of your hard work for the benefit of the manuscript. It's all about word count. One of the toughest obstacles, in my opinion, novelists must face.

Let’s take a second to put word count into perspective.

Remember high school, and the dreaded 5 paragraph essay? That was roughly 500 words. Probably less.

Remember English 101, when your college professor made you write a 12 page essay, and you thought you were going to DIE? That was roughly 3,500 words. Less, if you knew the trick about making your punctuation gigantic.

When I first finished Secrets of The Tally, my manuscript was 150,000 words. I knew this was on the long side for a book, but I didn’t realize that in the Young Adult market, 150,000 is simply unacceptable.

For years, I couldn’t figure out why nobody in the industry was interested in even looking at SOTT. It wasn’t until my first writers conference that somebody told me the tough truth. Don’t shoot the messenger guys – but if you want to break into the Young Adult traditional publishing market, you have to be in the 80,000-90,000 word range, just to be considered.

Cue the outrage, I know.

And THIS is why it’s called killing your darlings, because when somebody says you have to cut SIXTY-THOUSAND words from your manuscript, it’s like watching two-thousand hours of your life evaporate. ALL that hard work, those characters you’ve poured your heart into, the ideas that make you smile every time you read them… It’s murder!

But we do it.

I made every sacrifice humanly possible to get my word count down, just short of cutting the book in half. (Can you imagine if SOTT ended right before Archie grabbed Allie and explained her past? I’d never buy the second book if an author did that to me.)

Several characters were erased from the world entirely, and a couple sets of characters were consolidated into one person. Whole chapters went missing. Certain parts of the world that had once been important were suddenly non-existent. I went through every single paragraph multiple times to see if there was any way I could remove it from the book without seriously harming it. And if I truly couldn’t take it out, I moved to a sentence-by-sentence approach, to see if the paragraph could possibly survive with one less sentence. Then word-by-word, finding everywhere I could possibly take a word out, or turn two words into one.

The result? It took me the better part of a year, but I finally dipped below the 100,000 word barrier, and my book came out much, much stronger for it.

I’ve already forgotten most of the names of the characters who didn’t make the cut. Every once in a while, I think about a deleted scene I really liked, but then I remind myself that just because it was a good scene, doesn’t mean it contributed to this story.

I’m currently in the editing stage of Catching Epics, and fighting the word-count fight once more. I have no need to get my manuscript svelte for the benefit of publishers anymore, but I’m slashing scenes and characters anyway because I know how much SOTT improved when I killed my darlings.

“Sometimes you must destroy what you like to get what you love.”

All that being said though, I do believe Catching Epics will end up a little longer than SOTT.

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