Culling Dahrlings for the Pacifist

Every writer of this century is familiar with the phrase ‘culling dahrlings’ (probably). Throughout this post I’m going to explain to you what it means…and then what it means…and then what it means…

I’ve been trying to cut a novel for about a year, off and on. Since last September it has been strenuous: I must’ve averaged about ten hours a week—and when you’re me, that’s near impossible (and embarrassing to state, the amount of things I ought to have done for other people which got pushed back).

I used to have to force myself to edit, and even then it wasn’t editing so much as elongating. I wrote novellas which on first pass gained twenty thousand words. I wrote bottom-end YAs which grew to top-end YAs. My second drafts are less readable than my firsts, for their unbroken prose, uncurbed tangents and ambitious extended metaphors. I could edit out typos and increase my wordcount by forty percent—but I had no idea how to cut.

At the end of 2012, I typed ‘Fin’* at the foot of Captain’s Paper, and danced a jig.

Boy, oh, boy! At New Year I realised it wasn’t at all finished, and all along my subconscious writer self had been hinting at a finale that hadn’t even crossed my alert mind. I added three chapters—and saw that I needed more overt foreshadowing. I added two more chapters—and no longer believed in the romance. More, more, more!

By February it had risen from 90k to 132k, and I still needed a better basis for the romance which constitutes a necessary plot-point (not for its own sake—Captain’s Paper is not a romance).

I wasn’t halfway through my sixteenth year, but even I knew this was getting ridiculous.

I got some advice and read my manuscript aloud, noting as I edited (again) where it was long-winded or stilted. Contracting where I could; removing ‘that’, ‘just’, ‘even’, ‘still’; scoring extra prepositions. All the usuals (though I didn’t know it at the time).

June 2013. 127,000. Still missing key scenes.

Another pass. Dialogue was condensed and realised. Verbs were tightened, telling identified (I hope). Descriptions were halved.

September 2013. 124,000. Still missing key scenes. This was hopeless.

Every writer, surely, will appreciate my plight. Could people not appreciate my wonderful novel in its full form, its verbose glory? Their loss. It was my novel. And I loved my writing. Every sentence was a baby to me (I’m sixteen; I possess or create nothing that lasts). The prospect of violence to my babies thrust a dagger deep into my maternal soul. I tortured myself.

Autumn 2013. I entered a couple of contests—from both I was fortunate enough to get feedback. Both agents/mentors liked my style and tone, but expressed concern over wordcount. That was when I knew it was serious. No more conscientious objections. I was being a jerk.

Determination spiked, I tied my loose ends. Back up to 127,000. Still, no more yellow highlightings in the wordcount tracking document; so much gained (I use yellow for ‘to be completed’ or ‘to be revised’. It stresses me out).

I had another go. I did my research.

This time I tackled introspection. Drina is a far-seeing character, but she doesn’t put as much effort into her observance as I do into my writing of her, thus logically I justified merciless cuttings. Plus it bores readers to be spoonfed every deduction. But that was a secondary concern, ha.

Everything in red was cut in January. It lasted so long!

Everything in red was cut in January. It lasted so long!

November 2013. One year ‘complete’. 112,000. That was better.

Over that Christmas, exposition and imagery got a rigorous routing. A couple of dialogue scenes were cut altogether, along with the prologue and what I called the ‘interlude’ (or second prologue when I considered splitting it into two novels rather than one. I’m glad I rejected that).

January 2014. 105,000. YA books may be best in the region of 60-80k, but all I wanted was to get it under 100. It was stressful, it was horrendous, but the end was in sight.

March 2014. All of the above areas underwent another extirpation. Characters’ surnames, even entire characters, a brief subplot and most of CP’s humorous explanatory anecdotes were pasted in a precious document passionately entitled ‘EXCISION’, with a wordcount near 10,000. (I lost it in a memory stick failure last week; but I pretend I have no sentimental weakness for mere words.)


I hadn’t even noticed the two-figure transition! Intense. Exactly twenty-five percent gone, with no irredeemable regrets. Such jubilation…!

But you’re not interested in that.


So what have I learnt? Well, so much I don’t know where to start. I’ll probably add to this list.

  1. There is NEVER nothing to cut. Or, rather, there is always more. You can either despair or feel encouraged: it is always possible.
  2. By trimming my writing I’m actually doing my readers a favour. The least instance of verbosity can be truly annoying and insulting—completely without intention, of course. But you must edit with a view towards the effect of every paragraph on the reader.
  3. You can call yourself anything, but you have to face facts, even if you don’t accept them. They’re there, and you have to work alongside them. (I don’t want to sound self-righteous, especially when I have so much trouble with exactly this, but…yeah.)
  4. In terms of personal benefits, I have confidence in my own ability to write succinctly (well, my ability to edit to effect).
  5. I might just actually enjoy culling dahrlings. Not in a masochistic way. And I certainly do feel a twinge when a particularly pretty metaphor gets the blade. But for the satisfaction when, after a hard session in the cutting-room, the wordcount has decreased by a solid 500, and the pride in reading a concise passage of my own work (always a novelty, for a circumlocutory verbalist like me), I’d do it again and again.


Don’t get me wrong. I’ve more to do. 98k is still too long for a YA Contemporary (or Literary; I don’t know any more). But I’ve reached that target; with an easier mind I can turn my attention to other projects, and let it sit, smoking from the ordeal, but content for the present.

Meanwhile, I have six documents of the novel at its varying stages, and a habitual compulsion to load the latest and excise another hundred words every time I open my laptop.

At some point, having tried a few critique partners and not yet struck a seam, I’ll be seeking someone to just read the entire thing and tell me, please, where else I’m going wrong! Delighted to return the favour so long as it’s not in exam period (that, imminent, alas).


So here I end. ‘Fine’, I say. And we all laugh, because never will it be over!

Happy culling, lovely ones!


UPDATED WORDCOUNT (July 2014): 75,782

May 2016. 75,611. After a little querying (months and months ago), I’ve recently hit on a revamping idea. Well, two. Either (a) I commercialise the book and structure it as a romance, which might fix the pacing issues in the first act and integrate the plot threads better. Or (b) I model it on its dream comp title, WHITE OLEANDER, and turn it into a sweeping epic across Drina’s lifetime. (b) more closely resembles my original vision, and I see how much more powerful the characters’ motivations would be. My issue is what that would do to the wordcount. Janet Fitch’s bestseller, after all, needs every one of its 137,000 words. That would throw all my book’s chances at ever being read in jeopardy, and after all, I would keep its YA audience. Summer project, maybe.

*I didn’t, in fact, but it seemed appropriate to say I did.

A Terrifying Thought

The writing front hasn’t been very productive the past three days.

The start of the week went off with a bang, but on Wednesday evening some switch got turned off. I’ve completed perhaps twenty novels and novellas in the past seven or eight years, but not one of them has a clever or exciting plot. Not one worthy of editing for such an aspiration as publication.

I thought I could do characters and imagery, and that would suffice—but no. Oh, no! On Wednesday I tackled another chapter…and the deficiencies of prose, dialogue, themes…gah, everything, overwhelmed me.

I’ve no heart to edit, no desire to write, no inclination to have anything to do with either my work or anyone else’s. We all have bad spells, but I’m closer to giving up today than I have been in many months.

Is it a lack of inspiration? I sit in front of my blank page, pen in hand, willing myself to begin a new project, to have a wonderful plot idea just begging to be set down on paper.

Nothing comes. Nothing! And I scarcely even care if the page is emptier than before I first saw it.

It’s not true writer’s block, if such a thing exists. It’s a complete antipathy towards anything creative. Instead I have filled my hours with equations and formulae, such as can usually be applied to in times of annoyance. And even they don’t cheer me up, for my misery isn’t so much to do with writing at all:

My characters have stopped talking to me. Since I first started writing, at the age of six or seven, my fictional people, their lives, voices, traits, grievances, have filled my thoughts day and night. Always there has been a cast of characters buzzing in my thoughts, effervescing over onto paper. Even when I’ve contended with ‘block’ before, the people in my mind have never left me alone.

Today I haven’t thought of them at all, unless reminded by the plethora of papers, notebooks, family trees, favourites tables and red-inked printouts littering my bedroom. And for a writer, that is a terrifying thought.