One of the more disconcerting pieces of advice that professionals give you when you start out as a writer is to “kill your babies”. The first time you hear it can be a bit of a “Wait, what!?!” moment. It’s designed to be shocking, because the idea that they want new writers to learn is a difficult one. You must be able to sacrifice anything in the story for the good of the story. It works a little like this…
You have a novel you want to write. From the moment you imagined the novel you could see one particular scene in your head – maybe it’s the climactic confrontation between the villain and the hero, or something equally significant. It’s the scene that captures the whole feel of your book. Or it’s a character with specific trait that you just love; or the book just takes place in the setting you love – the Greek islands, Communist China or revolutionary USA (turns out books can be set in lots of places, amazing things that they are).
Then, as you settle down to write, the story grows and matures. It’s still got your favourite bit, but now it’s got a whole lot more. When you go back over it, actually your favourite bit is starting to feel a little forced. This is where the Herodian advice comes in – when you’re editing and rewriting you need to be ready to see any part that isn’t working, even if it’s the part you love. If you have to twist the story into knots just to get the hero and the villain up on that rooftop for their confrontation then you need to be ready to ask, does that scene still need to happen? You love the scene, but if the story is better without it, you should be ready to cut it.
You need to be ready to kill your babies.
As confronting piece of advice as this sounds, until I actually started to do it, I hadn’t realised how difficult it could be. But I’ve learned my lesson well, and now, as I write the sequel to Prentice Ash, I find myself having to wield the knife more brutally than I ever have before. I’ve known the plot of book 2 for years (over a decade in fact) and I’ve written over a hundred thousand words in the first manuscript. Except now I’ve realised that the plot of book 2 is really the plot of books 2 & 3. I have to go back and start again; I have to unwind the plot threads and start a new book (the new book 2) and reserve some ideas for the new book 3.
I know I’ll be able to reuse some text from the manuscript I’ve already written, but not as much as you might think. The two new books both need to have their own story structure to work. So the blade flashes and the manuscript is slain, its body reserved for possible transplants. It’s the most comprehensive edit I’ve ever undertaken.
Killing babies indeed.
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