The 12 Days of Liz: Day One: Kill Your Darlings

I’m in a full-court press on Liz while doing about twenty other things, but I have not failed to notice that the last three posts here were announcements. I don’t have time to do decent, thoughtful posts right now, but I can do a 12 Days of Liz and dump whatever I happen to trip over that day on you. Today it’s about cutting lines you love.

This is in the first scene in Liz:

The cop wasn’t anybody I knew, which meant I wouldn’t get any “Well, here’s trouble back in town” crap, although he did fit the general description of “Burney Guy”: a good old Midwestern boy with more chin than forehead, eyes narrowed in suspicion over a nose that had been broken at least once. If you’d asked me to put money on it, I’d have bet that his knees were gone, too. We like our high school football rough in Ohio, so we tend to maim our young.

I smiled up at him, cheerful and innocent as all hell.

He didn’t smile back, but he didn’t look particularly upset, either.

I really love that football line, but it completely slows the action and puts too much space between seeing the cop (that would be Vince) and her reaction (the smile). So that line that I love? It has to go. Faulkner said, “Kill your darlings” and he meant to get rid of anything you especially love that’s in the story pretty much because you especially love it and not because it’s necessary. Which brings us to my favorite bit of Strunk and White:

Omit needless words.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Along with Elmore Leonard’s “I try to leave out the parts people skip,” this is the best writing advice I know.

So that section now reads:

The cop wasn’t anybody I knew, which meant I wouldn’t get any “Well, here’s trouble back in town” crap, although he did fit the general description of “Burney Guy”: a good old Midwestern boy with more chin than forehead, eyes narrowed in suspicion over a nose that had been broken at least once.

I smiled up at him, cheerful and innocent as all hell.

He didn’t smile back, but he didn’t look particularly upset, either.

Story first. Always, always story first.

45 thoughts on “The 12 Days of Liz: Day One: Kill Your Darlings

    1. You know, you never can.
      But I put it on Argh, so that’s something. And the book is much better without it.

      1. BLURB! “They like their football rough in Ohio, and they tend to maim their young: but just how maimed, Liz finds out when she winds up in town again. Homecoming was a bitch.” LOL, OK, doesn’t work there, either. Doesn’t really work without the broken nose and stuff.

        However . . . when I first read the broken nose line, my first thought went to bar brawls and gangsters, not high school football. If high school football is going to be a big motif, there might be a way to work that line (or variation of) in somehow.

        1. Actually, it turns out he was in the Army for awhile. You don’t get that until the second book though, so I’m just leaving the broken nose in as a detail. Where I come from, lots of guys get their noses broken (g).

  1. Wow. I’m impressed. Not that you did it, but at what a huge difference one sentence can make. I needed this. Thanks!

  2. So much easier to see (for me, anyway), in someone else’s work. Again, thanks!

  3. Well, poorer, I loved that line, too. Can we start a Top Ten Best Lines That Didn’t Make It Into The Book? Maybe these could be used for book signings:)

  4. I loved the football line, too, but I love rambling, so my opinion isn’t helpful. That, and I’m letting my son play football this year for the first time, so the “maiming them young” concept is pretty close to my heart right now.

    See? This comment rambled, too.

  5. I love that line because I’m from Ohio and football was HUGE in my hometown. So it just makes me smile. But all your sentences make me smile so I can live with the cut. Especially if it gets me the rest of the lines sooner.

  6. I loved the line but I see how the scene is better without it. In order to write books as good as yours, one has to be very cutthroat. I’m not sure I could do it.

  7. It’s better, sharper, without the extra line, but I’m like everyone else I love it. Now there is greater emphasis on, “Well here’s trouble back in town” crap, which says so much about the heroine. Thanks for the great example of when less is more.

  8. Of course what’s “unnecessary” depends on the author. If you were PG Wodehouse the football line would be more important than the physical description. 😉

    The cop wasn’t anybody I knew, which meant I wouldn’t get any “Well, here’s trouble back in town” crap. Though he did look like the sort who proved the Ohio motto: We like our high school football rough, so we tend to maim our young.

  9. Huh. As a reader, I like it better with the football line. True, I’m probably not quite as consciously in tune with things like pacing and such. Instead it felt like you cut a little bit of Liz out of there. That was a small, tiny nugget of her personality that showed through with that line. Oh well. *shrug*

    1. Me too, or at least, I didn’t really see it slowing things down. I like the line, and I don’t see much difference after taking it out. For me, it set up a little bit more about the community and mentality of Burney, Ohio, and snapped him into that puzzle a bit more. I’ve read writing with redundancies and needless stuff, but I don’t see it here.

  10. Ack, well as we all know I’m a rambler. Just ask Lani who just had the dubious pleasure of taking the red pen to some of my work. So all this advice goes double for me. Maybe triple.

  11. This is why I’ll never be a writer. I could never resist the urge to show off, even at the expense of story. It is a great line.

  12. Plus, there’s the contrast between:

    We like our high school football rough in Ohio, so we tend to maim our young.

    Followed by:

    I smiled up at him, cheerful and innocent as all hell.

    “Rough” and “maim” versus “smiled…cheerful and innocent”. When you remove that line, you remove that contrast and definitely loose something.

    Ok, I’ll stop now.

  13. I’ve been trying, usually fruitlessly, to teach high school students to omit needless words for more years than I care to count. Poor writers ramble aimlessly. Good ones at that age tend to ramble toward their point, which is better, but not as good as it could be. I find the potentially really good writers the most frustrating: they come up with lovely lines [like the football one] and can’t let them go. Which is why I love your books, Jenny. You’re one of the very few authors that I don’t itch to edit. You write with both style and precision, a rare combination.

  14. You know where I live, and I know where you lived, so that’s why I know that line is oh so VERY true! Now, I would like the tiara for best run on sentence please.
    Isn’t it easy to see why SHE is the writer and I am the reader? 🙂

  15. I disagree that removing the line improves the scene. For one thing, now we wonder about the broken nose. We miss out on cultural context for the cop, where she’s going, what kind of man the cop is, what her expectations are for his background and attitude. It provides background for the setting (not all of us know anything about the Midwest).

    Stripping down the writing like this probably looks good to you because you’re a highly structural writer. But the structure is there to give shape to the story, and I strongly feel that tossoff one-line characterizations like that one enrich the narrative and the reader’s experience.

    I often feel rushed through your books, and this edit tells me why. I also feel “placeless” in them. Possibly if you left a few more of these in, the work would benefit.

    Not being overly harsh here, I think; you’re a big girl and you’ve been staring at this thing through a microscope in your mind for a long while now.

  16. By the way, Liz’s “We take our…” in that line also tells me a fair bit about her up front. Effortlessly.

  17. I agree that the sentence does get in the way of her seeing and evaluating the cop and her response. It makes a lot of difference, even though the football line is so fine. This is interesting to see, how you make a huge difference with one simple change.

  18. I think it might depend on the kind of reader you are. Some readers like to read for story (that would be me) and they get annoyed if it’s too bogged down with extra writing. Others like to sink in and stay awhile.
    But I still think the line was me showing off more than it was about the scene. Liz is tense in this scene, so I don’t think her mind would be wandering like that. She’d look up at him, evaluate him, and go on to getting herself out of trouble. So I think that line is just bad for the scene. It puts too much space between the look and the response, it undercuts her tension, and it’s really more me showing off than it is Liz observing something. It has to go.

    1. I’m a sink in and stay a while kind of reader. Which is why I do a lot of re-reading. But I’ve never had trouble sticking around in the worlds you create, so I’ll trust you on this one.

  19. I love Strunk & White! Was introduced to it (them?) in high school, and my writing is definitely better for it. I even bought an updated copy a few years back and it’s proved invaluable in helping me edit my own work.

  20. Watching this process – reading your posts, reading these very insightful comments, reading your comments back – this is just fascinating and so helpful. My heart wants to go with the people who say keep the line in (I’m definitely a “sink in and stay awhile” reader – actually have more fun rereading my favorites than I do on the first read through). But I do trust your judgement, so I’m figuring that even though you’ve steeled yourself to cut out that fun line, all the information it gave us (about Liz, about Burney, about Vince) is somewhere else in the book. Gosh, I’m eager to read this story.

  21. Oh, if she’s tense in the scene then the football line definitely needs to go. Though before reading that comment I wondered if it could stay if it were just a little shorter: “. . . eyes narrowed in suspicion over a nose that had been broken at least once. I’d bet money his knees were gone, too. We like our high school football rough in Ohio, so we tend to maim our young.”

  22. As a Buckeye football fan, I’m sorry to see that line go. So apropos! 🙂

  23. (-: That line would play in Texas and Nebraska and at least another dozen states, I bet. But, you’ve always come up with a great book, so I trust your judgement. If the sentiment needs expressing, it’ll worm it’s way back in there somehow.

  24. Just getting to this today after a midyear review with my boss where we discussed, among other things, how to pare down emails. Advice is remarkably congruent with this post: is a sentence in there because I want to tell them, or in there because they need to know it? In this scene, Liz meets cop, briefly sizes him up then goes into action. The introspection about football breaks the flow. We don’t need it- want, maybe. Need, no. Thanks for the example.

  25. Oh, it’s a good line! You should save it and use it about somebody else. Just keep it in a little box of good lines on your desk and whip it out one of these chapters.

  26. The broken nose and probable knees don’t make sense without the football sentence. There’s no reason for a broken nose to be typically Midwestern, until you provide that punchline.

  27. Oh, yeah, I like that football line, too. It sometimes hurts to have to kill lines like that, but when the story’s better for it, you have no choice. Sigh.

  28. You are the writer and I definitely defer but I have to chime in and agree with those who say that the line does add something. It tells us a lot about Liz. It makes us like her and hooks us into wanting to know more about her early on.

  29. This paragraph is much tighter and better for leaving out the football reference. So kudos to you. I know how hard it is to kill your darlings, the fights I have had with my clients when I worked as an editor, are legendary and dirty. What I find amazing is that while a lot of authors know about these little ‘rules’ in writing not many really use them and are so up-front about it as you. So kudos to you!!! I wish more authors would have been so consequent with their writing, it would have cost me a lot less energy while editing their stuff. 😀

  30. Garrison Keillor calls high school football sanctioned child abuse – just about what you said here.

Comments are closed.