Kill your darlings

Sometimes it’s not how many words you write, it’s how many you cut.

Now, there’s no doubt about it: it feels more fulfilling–and it’s more fun–to rack up big word counts of shiny new words. 1,000 words written? Yeah, not bad. 1,500? Right on. 2,000 or more? Now we’re talking’! But writing is more than churning stuff out. Writing also means revising and editing, rewriting and proof reading. And it means cutting.


A lot of red ink. Some rewriting, a few word changes, but mostly just hacking out stuff that was slowing the story down.

Today was all about the cutting. Over the last few weeks I’ve taken a break from my novel to work on some short stories–to clear my head, get a little perspective, and have some fun whipping out some stuff I can finish in short order. One of them I drafted  entirely in longhand before typing it up, which was a nice breather away from the computer. Going through it a few times now, I’ve managed to hack out 450 words (about 5% of the total) and I hope to cut at least that much more. Already it’s leaner, tighter–and better. Sometimes less really is more.

Not to get overly spiritual, but–actually, let me just dive right in: this is a spiritual thing. In the Gospel of John,  Jesus compares himself to a vine, his disciples to branches of the vine, and God the Father to the gardener. He says that God prunes the branches that bear fruit so that they will be even more fruitful. He prunes the good ones, the fruitful ones.

Whether it’s a story or our lives, pruning means cutting away at good stuff so it will be even better. And it’s not easy. With the story, it means cutting away stuff I spent time on. A lot of time. Stuff I like. Stuff that I think is pretty well written–but that needs to go so that the whole piece will be better. (It’s called “killing your darlings” here in the land of writing.)

The same is true of our lives. More isn’t always better. Trying to do everything usually means not doing anything very well. “A mile wide and an inch deep” isn’t a good thing. We have to be willing to be pruned (probably in lots of ways).

The pruning of my story isn’t done. I’ll be doing another round of it tomorrow, trying to get those next 500 words cut. It’s not going to be easy; after all, pruning well is pretty much just as hard as getting the words down to begin with. But the pages are printed–and the red pen is ready.


In case you were wondering…

What’s the most popular post so far here at A Year with Mona? I know you’ve been dying to know. Well, here’s a roundup of the top five.


Far and away the most popular (and most shared on Facebook) is “Mugging on the Metro“–the story of the time I saw a guy snatch a woman’s cell phone right out of her hands and flee the scene.

A distant second is “This is the end…” An account of my progress with writing the end of my novel and how to make endings work in general. This one’s a bit of surprise, really: after a handful of reads when I wrote it last December, now this post, far more than any other, gets consistently read (or at least opened). Almost every day, people search for “the end,” and end up here.

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Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read, Part 3

The final installment in my series about the essential kinds of writing books for writers.

The Caffeinated Writer

Part 3: The Life of Writing

The life of writing isn’t like a job where you clock in and clock out. Sure, if you’re a journalist, but not if you’re writing fiction. If a day goes by and you don’t write a single word, there’s no one to dock your pay.

So now, the final book you need in your regular reading diet as a writer: something about actually living the writing life. Because, guess what? Just focusing on the writing itself isn’t enough. Unless your goal is to finish your novel and stick it in a drawer. Or if you don’t actually care about finishing. Or if you just want to dabble, if writing is just a hobby. But if you want to get your writing out into the world and reach readers, you’ll need to do more. And you’ll need a guide. In The Art of War for…

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Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read, Part 2

Today: Part Two of my series “Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read” featured at The Caffeinated Writer.

The Caffeinated Writer

Part 2: The Art of Writing

It’s sad but true: you can craft grammatically perfect prose, turn a nice phrase, and even come up with an insightful metaphor or two—and still write forgettable fiction. How many books feature the same stock characters and predictable plots? Or worse: unbelievable characters and clunky, hole-ridden plots? So, if you’re going to write, if you’re going to pour your time, your energy, your life into a world that doesn’t even actually exist—if you’re willing to do all that—why not make your writing the best it can possibly be?

In my last post, I featured a wonderful little book on the craft of writing, The Elements of Eloquence. It drills down deep into phrases, sentences, and rhetoric. Today, we look at the second kind of book that should be a part of every writer’s reading diet: a book on the art of writing…

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Chasing the sun

Recently I was griping about the rain in Paris. Being from Seattle, I get my fill of rain. The blanket of grey that all too often rolls out over the Parisian sky in winter feels far too familiar. And it’s April now—it’s spring, right?

Why didn’t we decide to spend a year in Barcelona? I ask myself again. Or Italy?

So, in fairness, I better give thanks for the sunlight we’ve had recently, even if we’ve had some spring rains as well. But overall the temperatures are warming up, the days are getting longer and we’re seeing blue skies more and more. Which all means writing not only in cafés, but in parks, like this lovely one in our neighborhood:


After an hour there yesterday, I stopped by another park, this time in the center of town. As I typed away on my bench, I heard voices nearby and turned to see the police patting down a young guy at the next bench. They were calm, but intent. I kept typing. When I looked over again, they were still patting him down and it looked like they were questioning him about his belongings. I tried not to stare, but noticed others were paying attention as well. I kept typing. Further discussion followed between the police and the young guy that I couldn’t hear, and likely wouldn’t have been able to understand very well anyway. At last the police bid him “bonne journée” and went on their way.

Later, a friend mentioned I should try to work the incident into my book; coincidentally, I was working on a scene at the time in which one of my characters finds another one passed out in a park. No police or pat downs, but close enough.

I typed for a while longer, the guy eventually went on his way, and I went on mine. I decided to take the bus home; it follows a more direct route than the métro, but even so can take longer, especially in traffic. But—there’s more sun.

Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read, Part 1

Today, part one of my series “Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read” was featured at The Caffeinated Writer. Enjoy!

The Caffeinated Writer

Part 1: The Craft of Writing

What’s the most important rule of writing a novel? Get your butt in the chair and write. Got that? Good. But what’s next? What will take you from hack to Hemingway? Here’s an idea: read.

Read the kinds of things you want to write, of course. Then read things thataren’tlike what you want to write. Read classics. Read poetry. (I’ve heard that Ray Bradbury read poetry every day. Reading his work, I believe it.)

But if you really want to write, then make sure you read books abouthowto write, and how tobea writer. And then read them again. While there’s no shortage of writing advice out there on the internet, do yourself—and your readers—a favor and dig a little deeper. Make these three kinds of writing books a part of your regular reading diet:

  • A book aboutthe…

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How much are you willing to work for it?

Supposedly George Frideric Handel wrote “The Messiah” in just over three weeks. Mozart could whip out a minuet over coffee, hand it over to a creditor and thereby take care of his debts. And some composer whose name I’ve forgotten apparently would write out orchestral pieces one entire part at a time—the flute part, beginning to end; then the oboe; the clarinet; and so on down through the brass, percussion and strings—since he had the entire thing worked out in his head!

These are the kind of stories I heard when I was studying music composition in college (back in a prior millennium).

Amazing, right? Apocryphal? Perhaps; although it seems pretty well established that Handel did write the Messiah in an incredibly fast burst of creativity. And there’s no doubt that Mozart was phenomenally productive in his 36 years on earth.

But truthfully, these kinds of stories may have done me more harm than good. I can’t relate to such seemingly superhuman creative output. How many of us can? These stories further the idea that creativity is magical, or effortless, or perhaps entirely the province of god-like geniuses.

But it’s not. Sure, there are geniuses out there, and sure, for some creativity does come easier. But stories of exceptional creativity held up as anything but that—exceptional—serve only to distract from the reality of what any significant endeavor requires: hard work, perseverance, and sweat.

The day you realize it’s time to start over

Since December, I’ve been working on a new draft of the final act of my novel, and much of it is coming together well. But the last few weeks have been spent on a critical passage that sets up the climax, and I’ve started having serious doubts about it: Some pieces were feeling a bit contrived. Some character motivations didn’t truly make sense. And a critical incident didn’t seem entirely logical, believable… or even physically possible.


So it was time for a conference with one of my go-to writing critique partners. That’s right, my thirteen-year-old daughter, Carolyn. Her credentials? Poet. Short story writer. Lyricist. If I’d written as much as she has back when I was her age, I’d no doubt be a better writer now. But no time for regrets, it’s time for a consultation.

It was just the two of us one night, so I asked what she wanted to do. She suggested we go to the fancy Starbucks and write. Well, twist my arm! After an hour or so of writing, we headed over to Breakfast in America for burgers and to talk over our respective works-in-progress.

When it was my turn, I laid out the situation of the scene I’ve been concerned about. As soon as I got to the critical moment, she looked at me and said, “Oh, this is what’s going to happen, right?” and proceeded to predict precisely where the painfully predictable scene was going.

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A walk in the sun

Leap Day. What to do with an extra day in February? Better yet: an extra day without French class! (And no, I’m not even disappointed that I’d reviewed my homework, got my Americano brewed, and walked down to class–just five minutes away–only to discover it was cancelled.)

With the sun shining (rain is supposed to be back on the way soon), it was time to get outside and off the beaten path. So today that meant Parc Monceau and the Église Saint-Augustin in the huitième arrondissement.

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It was chilly, but the ducks didn’t seem to mind the cold. Not sure what the pyramid structure is. Random mausoleum? Ostentatious park maintenance storage facility? Entrance to a secret underground Illuminati stronghold? If you know, leave a comment!

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The Saint Augustine church doesn’t even merit a mention in my guidebook. In any other town it would be the star of the show, but Paris has an abundance of riches.

From there it was off to Starbucks to do some writing with my headphones in, since the guy next to me was slouched snoring in his seat. After last week, my writing goals today were much more modest: just get some writing–any writing–done.

Move to Paris. Join rock band.

Of all the things I didn’t expect to experience in Paris, this clocks in at number one: joining a rock band.

I mean really, when we talked about moving to Paris, what did we dream of? Picking up the daily baguette from the bakery. Enjoying coffee on the terrace of a café. Strolling the streets, taking lots of pictures, finding hidden corners that don’t make the guidebooks. Visiting the Louvre without the pressure to see everything in one trip. Meeting locals. Learning some French.

But rocking “You Shook Me All Night Long” at the Australian Embassy, complete with a guest didgeridoo player? Yeah, I didn’t see that coming.

It just goes to show what idle conversation can lead to. It was last fall. I was picking up Evelyn from a school trip at the Montparnasse Station and got to talking with one of the other parents. Turned out he was in a cover band–The Doodads–with some other parents, a few teachers, and other assorted expats. I mentioned that I played bass and keyboards. Just making conversation, you know. A few weeks later we met for coffee at one of those café terraces–just what I’d come to Paris for. We swapped stories, told musician jokes, and talked about life in France. Next thing you know, the regular bass player can’t make a gig and they ask me to fill in for the night at the Australian Embassy.

I think that was six gigs ago.

If I had any artistic dreams for my move to Paris, it was to make a lot of progress on writing a novel (what American writer doesn’t want to live in Paris and write? Right?). Even though I love music and still enjoy playing, I gave up the rock star dreams a long time ago. The bands I played in when I was in high school never seemed to manage more than one gig before falling apart–if we even managed one gig. And that summer in college when I travelled around playing with a group? I think I netted maybe a hundred bucks for my trouble (it was actually a lot of fun). Good thing I had a scholarship.

Well, soon enough we were back at that same café where we’d had coffee, but this time packed together in corner playing “Take It Easy” and “Superstitious” till almost two in the morning. Since then, we’ve been back to the Australian Embassy, played at a club on a boat moored on the Seine, been back to the café a few times and even played at the Paris Polo Club.

Honestly, I wavered on whether to say yes to the Paris Polo Club gig. We already were going to be back at the Australian Embassy for their Australia Day celebration the night before. And the last time we played there, it meant not getting to bed till about three. Did I really need another gig on the same weekend?

But what am I doing here anyway? Answer: I’m here to experience Paris. To see and do what this city has to offer. Meet people. See things I can’t see back in Seattle. When am I ever going to get another chance to go to the Paris Polo Club? Answer: Never. So, yes. Let’s do this.

The Polo Club couldn’t have been more different from the Australian Embassy. The embassy gig? Completely casual. Aussies in shorts and sunglasses dancing and drinking Aussie beer. The Polo Club? Parisians dressed to the nines, the Taittinger flowing, people making speeches and giving huge silver trophies to each other. Not to mention the best pre-gig dinner I’ve ever had at a venue (charcuterie, veal, and profiteroles? Bien sûr!). 

There’s a season for everything, it’s been said. And sometimes the season that comes is unexpected, something you didn’t foresee. I didn’t move to Paris to join a band. But I’m glad I said yes.