Writer's Notes

September: Killing Your Darlings

By Thonie Hevron

Malice cover“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

William Faulkner

My reason choosing this topic is embarrassing. When planning my last novel, With Malice Aforethought, I had an idea. An outline followed, then the beginnings of a story. I began work. Some months later and about 30K words into Malice, I happened to re-establish contact with a man I worked with many decades ago at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. Mike Brown was generally accepted to be one of the most competent, sensible and well-liked deputies around. When he retired, he was a Captain, and a 16-year veteran of Violent Crimes Investigations unit. He’d worked both positions my male protagonist held in the story. I reached out to Mike and asked him to read my outline.

His answer was quick: this scenario couldn’t happen.SCSO patch

Oh no! What was I going to do with the beautiful words I wrote? Thirty thousand words—a third of the book! It was with great anguish, I pressed the “delete” button. Mike was very generous with his time and with further discussion, I came up with a reasonable scenario that Mike said was credible. This newer version was not only more accurate, but it was better. It fit into my character needs better, was more exciting and allowed more plot flexibility.

In short, killing my darlings made for a better story.

My sacrifice on the altar of fiction authenticity was worth it.

When I announced this topic, my idea was to discuss how to cut words—words being the author’s darlings. But in receiving early posts and feedback from others, I’ve found some authors consider this phrase to mean actual characters. I believe there is no wrong answer and I’m thrilled to read others take on the subject. For every author, cutting their precious words is difficult. I can’t tell you yet what works for me, because with four books under my belt, it seems to change all the time. I do have a file of deleted scenes I keep so I don’t feel like I’ve wadded up the words for the waste basket. I’ll leave expert advice to three authors who present well thought out suggestions. They are below if you’d like to read further.wastebasketKristen Keiffer writes in Well-Storied, September 10, 2015 “8 Things to Cut When You Kill Your Darlings.” Her post is short, cogent and efficient. If you’re an author editing your manuscript, check this article out. “What it Means to Kill Your Darlings” on (2016) offers more ideas by Bethany Cadman.  Ruthanne Reid’s offers more suggestions how to recover from your assassination in her 2015 offering: “How to Kill Your Darlings and Survive the Process.”

I’m posting on Saturday, the first of September because I have a full house of authors this month who want to talk about murdering their own syllables.  On September 7th, Judy Alter has insight into killing off characters versus your own words. Lesley Diehl decided to interpret “Killing Your Darlings” as killing off characters, in her case, sometimes a really bad guy is too wonderful, too aggravating, too colorful to kill off even though he might deserve it! Her post appears on the 14th, Marilyn Meredith on September 21 talks about characters she doesn’t want to kill off, and Patricia Guthrie winds up the month on the 28th.


Writer's Notes

April Fool: Oh, the Mistakes I’ve Made by Judy Alter


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By Judy Alter

Looking back, it seems I’ve played the fool many times in my life. In matters of the heart for sure; as a parent, though I lucked out there and my four children turned out to be absolutely wonderful adults. But then there’s the matter of my career as an author. Oh, the foolish mistakes I’ve made.

I’d venture that ninety percent of authors, even successful ones, start out timid, insecure, and—here’s the biggie—apologetic. A post from an unpublished writer asking for advice recently said she’d submitted to an agent, hadn’t heard anything in almost year, hated to be a nuisance but what should she do. Whoa! Hated to be a nuisance? I wanted to shout but I managed to keep a level tone and my fingers off the cap key as I advised, “It’s your career. Take charge of it! You’re not badgering the agent; you’re asking for him or her to do his job. Don’t apologize!”

That’s a lesson I learned in hard knocks well after I’d begun writing. My first agent, way back in the eighties, specialized in young-adult fiction set in the American West, and that’s what I was writing. We met at a conference, and he approached me, so I was spared the long, painful search for an agent that so many authors go through. I hadn’t yet met the world of reality

When I did, it was a shock. By early in this century, the western market as I’d known it had fallen off, and I wanted to turn to mysteries. Only then did I begin to search for an agent—and realize what a difficult, long process it was. When an agent who knew my western work offered to represent my first mystery and gave me a year-long contract, I was grateful. Grateful for locking into a year-long contract? I should have been indignant, angry, at least reluctant. His initial enthusiasm turned to indifference and finally resentment. Promised new assignments never materialized, reports of submissions of my work and reactions were rare, and to this day I suspect he was doing precious little. I was on hold for a year, at the end of which he had, so he said, submitted my manuscript to all then-six major publishers, effectively killing it at those houses for another agent.

My next submission was to a highly respected smaller house that took non-agented submissions. They liked it, but they just weren’t sure. Could I give them more time? Each time I agreed, until they finally said they were sure—I was an almost-ran. They didn’t want my manuscript, but they did want me to feel free to submit another manuscript any time. Another year wasted.

One more time: I called an editor at a major mystery publishing house, a man I’d known as a colleague during my years with Western Writers of America. He was interested but liked my ideas for the sequel better and wanted me to make that the first book in the series. I declined, pleasantly I hope. I had the series story in my mind, and it began where I’d begun it. Many authors would say I’d been the fool again, turning down a tentative offer from a major house. But it was the first time I felt I’d taken charge of my career, and it worked out.  I published five novels in the Kelly O’Connell Mystery series and two in the Blue Plate Café Mystery series with a small indie publisher before the company went out of business. By then, I felt I had enough readers to become an indie author, and I’ve been driving the train myself ever since. I just wish I’d started years earlier.

In each of those three years where I allowed others to put my career on hold, I was essentially a victim. And that was my foolish mistake. Today, I’d take charge, give deadlines, be pro-active and less submissive.

In retrospect, I think it’s a lack of self-confidence that leads us to play the fool as authors, lovers, or parents. We carry out apologetic tone into all areas of our life, whereas we need to arm ourselves with a strong sense of our own worth.


Alter cover 3x4.5hires (002)Murder at the Bus Depot is the fourth Blue Plate Café Mystery by Judy Alter. In it she explores the tension between a developer who sees great possibilities in a small town and residents who want to preserve the history and atmosphere of their town. The conflict is complicated by a resurgence of interest in a thirty-year-old unsolved murder.

Buy it here: Amazon Murder at the Bus Depot


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Judy Alter is the award-winning author of three mysteries series: Kelly O’Connell Mysteries: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, Danger Comes Home, Deception in Strange Places, Desperate for Death, and The Color of Fear; three in the Blue Plate Café Series: Murder at the Blue Plate Café, Murder at the Tremont House, and Murder at Peacock Mansion; and two Oak Grove Mysteries: The Perfect Coed and Pigface and the Perfect Dog.

 She is also the author of historical fiction based on lives of women in the nineteenth-century American West, including Libbie, Jessie, Cherokee Rose, Sundance, Butch, and Me, and The Gilded Cage, and she has also published several young-adult novels, now available on Amazon.


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