Revision Week: Part 3 (“Kill Your Darlings”)

For Revision Week here at, I’ve found myself going through old manuscripts, seeking salient examples of my revision process. And while there are many, what’s even more pressing to me is that I’m revising a manuscript right now.

So I’ll stick with what’s immediately in front of me as an example.

Perhaps the most enervating aspect of revision is what I’ll call, The “I Stink” Syndrome. (And I’m watching my language here.) Where as writers we look at what we’ve written and realize that it’s not very good. Maybe even awful. And by extension, that we aren’t very good either. Conclusion: I stink.

You can’t write without confidence and this is a treacherous moment. So you have to fight those thoughts, even as you recognize that maybe what you wrote isn’t entirely a success. You have to let yourself off the hook. It stinks . . . but maybe I don’t.

As William Faulker once said of revision, it’s now time to “kill all your darlings.”

I just  overhauled a section of the book in which I repeatedly made a schoolboy mistake, an error that I should never make, not at this stage in my career. Yet there it was, clear as mud: I failed to “Show, Don’t Tell.” These writing lessons have to be learned over, and over, and over again.

As a visiting author, I go into schools and talk about the importance of showing. I’ll speak with large groups of kids and we’ll have lively, uproarious discussions about it. I’ll say, “I just took a train to New York. My editor asked about my trip. I told her it was terrible, absolutely horrible, the worst train trip ever.”

Then I’ll ask if anyone can tell me about my train trip. Of course, they can’t. There’s no detail. Zero visuals. So I propose that we try it again, with their help, by adding details. Think, everybody: What could happen on the worst train ride ever?

Once they catch on, the hands shoot up, the ideas get more hysterical (and sometimes disgusting), and laughter fills the room. The lesson is conveyed. Show, Don’t Tell.

So that’s a lot of what I’m doing this past week. Taking parts where I’ve told something about a character and writing new, brief scenes where we see that character in action. Really, it’s so basic that it’s almost embarrassing to admit.

In the previous manuscript, halfway through the book in Chapter 14, I wrote:

Jude considered himself a different kind of runner entirely. First of all, his father jogged; Jude ran. To Jude’s way of thinking, it was a big difference. His father was one of those old guys who stopped after his run, winded and panting, two fingers on his neck trying to find a pulse while his eyes stared at the watch on his wrist, counting the beats. Goofy, if you asked Jude. A lot of times, Jude headed out in just a pair of shorts. No shirt, no shoes, a barefoot runner in the ‘burbs. Nobody could say nothing, because Jude was faster than them all. He sometimes imagined himself as an old Indian messenger amongst the mesas, running till he found the next tribe somewhere over the rise. It was never about numbers for Jude. Not the distance traveled, nor the time it required. He ran for the love of it, like a colt in the grass.

Okay, I suppose that’s fine, and there’s a few nice phrases in there, some darlings I’ve come to like. Maybe there’s an image or two in there I’ll keep. But in thinking about the book as a whole, I needed to bring out that distinction sooner, allow the father to be present and alive. Show, don’t tell.

So I wrote a new scene and brought it all the way up to Chapter 5. Jude is back from his first day of work at Jones Beach. And we see the father. Note: My editor hasn’t seen a word of this, and it’s very likely to change significantly before I officially hand it in, so it’s possible this revision might not fly either. But here you go, folks, writing in the raw.

Jude stank of hamburger. He could barely stand it, the reek of cooked cow that clung to his clothes the whole bus ride home. He couldn’t wait to shower, rejoin the human race.

He saw his father out by the street in a cling-tight pair of black running shorts, stretching his Achilles tendon with one foot against the curb. Way more of dad’s butt than anybody needed to see.

“Hey, Jude,” his father greeted him. “I was just going out for a run. Want to join me?”

He always asked. Jude and his father hadn’t run together in years, but he always asked. And each time when Jude declined there was a lingering look of disappointment in his father’s eyes, a sag to his shoulders.

Jude pulled at the front of his sweat-stained shirt. Shook his head, “I’m too gross, can’t.”

Mr. Fox nodded as if he understood, and checked his sports watch. It was his new toy, a runner’s watch with all the latest features, heart rate monitor, pace alerts, session distance, GPS capability, the works. Jude’s father loved data, and as far as Jude was concerned, he did everything possible to suck the last ounce of joy out of jogging. Mr. Fox turned something as simple as going for a run into advanced mathematics, a middle-aged man still chasing his PBT (Personal Best Time). Even so, Jude had to admit it: the guy was in great shape.

“Mom inside?” Jude asked.

“Yes, um, she’s upstairs, resting,” Mr. Fox answered. “The heat, and –-“

“No worries,” Jude answered. “I ate at work.”

“Oh, hey, right. You worked today! How’d it go?”

“Pretty much okay. They gave me a paper hat.”

Jude kept the details to the bare minimum. He saw that his father only half-listened anyway. Mr. Fox brought two fingers to the carotid artery in his neck, lips moving slightly as he counted the pulse.

“Have a good run,” Jude said.

“I’m doing Bender Hill today. Five times up, five times down,” Mr. Fox announced. “Should be back in roughly sixty-five minutes.”

Yeah, roughly. Jude was halfway up the walk and gave no reply.

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