Friday 11 January 2019

Kill your darlings. No but really. - Kelly McCaughrain

Things that were in the first (50,000) word draft of my YA novel, Flying Tips for Flightless Birds, that didn’t make it to the final version:
  • Ghosts
  • A teenage girl main character and her best friend
  • An older sister who died in New York
  • A suicide
  • A falsely accused murderer
  • A literal mad woman in the attic
  • A jilted bride
  • Old letters and diaries
  • A ghost hunting expedition
  • A fire
  • A missing uncle
  • Separated parents

Anyone who’s read Flying Tips will be like, ‘WHAT!’ None of this is remotely connected to the final version.

Things that did survive to the final version:

  • About 1000 words
  • Lou
  • The circus family history

And that’s it. I ditched the rest. 

I know a lot of writers who are at the point of sending out manuscripts and getting feedback from agents and editors and being told they need big revisions. And they’re bravely getting on with it but it takes guts to make big changes and of course everyone complains about how hard it is. To which I want to reply ‘1000 words. Out of 50,000!’ But that’s not helpful. 

Every writer knows about killing your darlings but I’m not sure we really get it. In theory, we know it means, ‘if there’s a bit you really love, it should probably go’ but in practice we think it means, ‘if there’s a bit you really love but you secretly know it’s flawed, it should go.’

But how often do you cut a bit that isn’t flawed? That was actually quite good. How often have you deleted an entire character you really liked? A plotline that was interesting, a subplot that was working perfectly well, a chapter everyone said was great, a whole novel you’ve been working on for ten years? 

The current issue of Mslexia has a whole article on when you should admit defeat and give up. We’re so used to giving each other encouraging pep talks about keeping going, this seems like heresy, but sometimes it really is the right thing to do. Not only for your own sanity but for the books and characters that will never exist if you don’t give up and move on. Either temporarily or completely.

The very first document saved in my Flying Tips folder is dated 2005. I wrote 50,000 words and I could have finished it, I knew where it was going, the plot was all worked out. And then I just stopped. No big reason, all I can say is that I just wasn’t interested enough to go on. I put it away forever and wrote something else. I finished my second attempt at a novel and it got me onto the Times/Chickenhouse shortlist and it got me an agent but it never got published. My third was abandoned halfway through, as was my forth. I was starting to panic at this point, imagining my agent sitting at her desk in London tapping her fingernails and staring at her phone (which she wasn’t, of course. She’s a very busy woman with better things to do.) 

In desperation I went back to the abandoned Flying Tips and started making notes for how I could change it. But it had been so long I barely remembered writing it and I knew that I didn’t want to just continue from where I’d left off. I was basically scouting around for a new main character when Finch came along. And he came via a typo (‘he’ instead of ‘she’). It was that easy. Suddenly he was there and the rest of the book fell into place like dominos and was written within a year.

I know loads of writers who have struggled on with the same novel for ten, fifteen years, or even longer. The more time and effort you put into it, the harder it becomes to quit because you’ll have ‘wasted’ so much more (though nothing’s ever wasted really). They drag themselves to their desks day after day, dreading it. I half admire these writers because I am really not the self-punishing type. I give it a good shot and I’m by no means lazy, but if I’m not happy, I quit. I’m like a very mild-mannered hedonist. I’ll complain bitterly for a while, but the instant I hit the point of not sleeping, not eating or crying at weekends, that’s it, I’m out. Life’s too short. I do wonder what keeps these very persistent writers at it? Is it about failure? Not being a quitter? 

I’m quite proud to be a quitter. I’ve had so many hobbies I’ve lost count and I’ve quit most of them. But the other way of looking at it is, I’ve tried everything. Photography, book-binding, pottery, ballet, paper-making, jewellery-making, soap-making, gardening, a post-grad in library management, knitting, crochet, guitar, keyboards, ukulele, dressmaking, yoga, poi dancing, Hawaiian dancing, juggling, drawing, psychology, sign language, Italian, Icelandic, I was a professional belly dancer FFS. The last time I went to enrol at the local college the woman pulled up my file and said, ‘Whoa. You’ve done a lot.’ 

I have. I’ve got an amazing amount of random information and experience under my belt from which to someday write stories. But I couldn’t have done half of it if I hadn’t quit the other half. I highly recommend quitting.
There are other projects to be written. While you’ve been nursing your ailing WIP for ten years, how many other ideas have passed you by? And maybe all that WIP needed was some distance.

I often want to say to writers, ‘My God, you wrote this and it’s really good and you’re only 25, if you can do this now then in ten years, you’re going to be freaking amazing!’ And I genuinely mean it and it’s a lot more than you could say to many writers, but of course if you actually said that to them, their faces would fall through the floor. If someone had said it to me, I’d have collapsed. Because you want it to happen NOW. Ten years? It’s going to take ten years before I can write something publishable?!? Or twenty? Or thirty?

Yeah, it might. The final version of Flying Tips was actually a breeze to write (don’t throw things at me). Once I ditched my main character for a new one, it went like clockwork. But let’s just examine that sentence. I ditched my main character. That was probably the hardest bit of the rewrite and I think a lot of people will tinker at the sentence level forever rather than face big changes like that. And it took me ten years to get to that point, but it’s a much better book and I’m very glad I waited for it.

Since Flying Tips, I’ve abandoned one full, and one half novel and yet another 30,000 word draft. Which itself was a rewrite of a 30,000 word draft that was a rewrite of a 30,000 word draft.

I think quite often, if we have a workable idea, we cling to it like limpets because we’re terrified there won’t ever be another one. We’re afraid to sit back and wait for a better one to come along because that feels like time wasting. Especially if you’ve got an agent/publisher/contract waiting. But I’ve done that thing where you press on through with a workable idea because you feel like it should work, and it’s resulted in several complete but not very good novels. I learned a lot from writing them. Mainly I’ve learned to be patient. And to cut and run. 

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at 



Sue Purkiss said...

This is timely, and very helpful! 1000 words out of 50000 - phew!

Cherry said...

I love this! It's so encouraging to find out how other authors manage their flitty minds. Thanks for chearing up my Friday - Now where did I put that WIP?

Susan Price said...

Lovely, invigorating post. I'm very familiar with slashing thousands of words - with throwing out characters or amalgamating them - changing direction in a book... In fact, everything is fluid for the first several rewrites. Because I'm more of a pantser than a planner.

I always make notes to myself with a question mark at the end, to remind myself that this is only a possibility, not something I have to stick to for the next ten years. Jump off the tram lines!

If it isn't working for the whole book, change it! In time, I promise you, you come to love it.

I don't think the advice should be: Kill your darlings. Often the scenes and characters the writer loves are the just as good as they think they are. The advice should be: Get rid of anything, no matter how much you love it, if it doesn't work for the whole piece. But if it works for the whole thing, and you love it, hang on to it!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Sue and Cherry! I'm definitely a pantser, Susan, maybe that's a big part of it.

Rowena House said...

"I couldn’t have done half of it if I hadn’t quit the other half. I highly recommend quitting." How refreshing! I'm a fan of trundling out the management-speak version of this, i.e. "opportunity cost" if anyone's face shows even the ghost of a "so you've quit, then" expression. Also, lifting my hat to 1k/50k stat. Blimey.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Rowena, there should be a quitters club. 'What shall we quit today then?' So liberating.

Paul May said...

You make me think of Joseph Grand in Camus's novel La Peste, continually rewriting the first sentence of his novel! I'm all for stopping if something isn't working out, but not for throwing away completely. I once gave up on a book for a year or so and got it out in an idle moment only to discover that there was almost nothing wrong with it! And indeed it was published with very little revision. I think none of us start on a story in the first place if there isn't SOMETHING there, but that something sometimes needs the perspective of time to remind us what it was.

Enid Richemont said...

Way back in the mists of time, and very possibly even before some of you were born, I wrote an adult novel, based, as first novels nearly always are, on very passionate personal experience. The writing of it took over my life completely, and this was back in pre-computer days, so the writing was by hand, then typed. I sent it out, and it came very close to being published - in fact, I had an offer from a small Feminist press which I eventually declined for personal reasons. Not long after this, my first children's novel was accepted by Walker Books, and I went techie and didn't look back. I still write for children.

Fast forward to 2017. Via a writer friend,the adult novel got converted to Word - well, why not, as it was there, and she was happy to do it for a modest fee. I avoided looking at it for ages, then did, then began, as you do, editing and reconstructing. Unbound wanted to do it, but they work in mysterious and rather expensive ways, so I didn't go there. I've now tried it on a couple of fringe publishers, but so far, no interest. What I can't let go of, though, is the total passion with which it was written all those decades ago - it was like a drug, and I haven't experienced anything as intense as that since. How exactly this experience fits in with what's being discussed here I'm not sure, but do comment.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Very true, Paul. I like to put anything I've written away for months before I re-evaluate it. Magic happens in that drawer, I swear. Sometimes good magic, sometimes very bad magic!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Enid, glad to know another Walker author! I definitely think some books are written with more passion than others. And if a writer is expected to turn out one a year then they just couldn't ALL be labours of love. It's sad that, in financial and career terms, you can't always just abandon the ones you're not passionate about.