Desperately Seeking Darlings, by Kim Bullock


The length wasn’t terrible, but I feared it might be beyond the comfort zone for many agents seeking debut historical fiction. I hoped to avoid unnecessary auto-rejects. This meant not only eliminating extra words but murdering entire scenes; a quick read-through failed to yield obvious victims.

Sure, there were a few tangents that didn’t propel the plot forward much, but those were the family stories that had so enthralled me as a child, the ones that inspired me to write the novel in the first place. I couldn’t possibly remove those! Besides, what reader wouldn’t laugh at the image of my male protagonist, as a teenager in the 1870s, streaking through a sea of picnicking Mennonites in an attempt to escape the town constable? The reason he was being chased, and in the nude no less, is a damn funny story. So is his failed attempt to fly, but I digress…

A few months prior to completing my manuscript, I attended Donald Maass’ 21st Century Fiction workshop. Throughout the talk, he peppered his audience with questions they might ask themselves while composing. The goal was to ensure that each scene both moved the story forward and contained enough tension to keep readers engaged. I wrote many questions down, intending to compile them for use in pre-plotting my next novel.

Faced with a fat manuscript and out of ideas, I revisited my workshop notes and had an epiphany. The questions, though originally posed to help writers craft compelling scenes, could be adapted to gauge if existing scenes worked in the context of the whole novel or should be banished to the morgue file. If the experiment proved all scenes to be essential, the book would have to remain longish. If not, I’d know where to cut.

I pared the (many) questions down to the most essential and dug in.

I won’t lie. The exercise was torture and took weeks, but it shined an incriminating spotlight on most of my ‘darlings’ as well as a few unexpected scenes. With proof that what I’d once considered essential served no literary purpose, I could hack away without remorse.

For those whose manuscripts must lose significant word count, here’s the process that saved my sanity:

Write a scene by scene synopsis

If you only write one scene per chapter, do it by chapter. If not, do this for every scene, no matter how short.

Answer the following questions for each scene

  • Which characters are involved? Which POV is it in?
  • What does the POV character want at the beginning?
  • Does he/she get it?
  • What are the consequences either way?
  • What are the POV character’s emotions at the beginning of the scene? (Name all of them, not just the most obvious.)
  • What is the scene’s turning point?
  • What are the POV character’s emotions at the end?
  • What does the POV character want at the end?

What’s in it for you?

  • If you are unable to identify what that the main character wants and some way that the scene contributes toward either reaching her goal or being thwarted in some way, earmark it for potential annihilation. If it can be tweaked to fit neatly into the main arc of the story, salvage it. If not, it goes.
  • If there is no turning point, no change in a character’s circumstances, desires, or emotions, the scene is static. No matter how writerly, even gorgeous, the prose, make something happen or take it out.
  • If there is no emotion in the scene, there will be none in the reader. Add it or consider wielding your pruning shears.
  • If the emotions/goals/desires at the end of one scene don’t somehow lead into what happens in the next scene, that transition needs work.

If you know deep down what the exercise will reveal, expect this process to be especially hard. I spent the better part of a day trying to cheat the system in order to keep one particularly precious darling alive. It’s hard to argue with blank spaces and question marks. Eventually, I moved it to a separate “halfway-house” file instead of the morgue. Do whatever helps you sleep at night. The choice is always up to you.

Have you ever trimmed sizable chunks from a manuscript? How did you determine what needed to go?

Kim Bullock has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Oak Lovers, a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.

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