Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Murder your darlings

Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914): Oh What's That in the Hollow?
This Victorian (c.1895) painting of a rather attractive male corpse seems the ideal accompaniment to a story I've been writing recently, about a sexual encounter with the undead.

Today I thought I'd show you a short scene I cut out of the first draft - not because it was too offensive or creepy, but just because the story was sprawling and taking too long to get to the point. It's not a bad scene, and in a lot of ways I like it: it casts light on the protagonist's relationship with the other people she lives with, and hints at future conflicts and challenges that may arise when the short story is over. But the fact is that it needed cutting.

Sometimes you have to cut out good stuff to make the whole better. That's one of the hardest lessons you learn as an author. What's even worse: very often it's those inspired passages you are most proud of that are just out-of-place, and need to go.

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” - Arthur Qulller-Couch ("Murder your darlings" also attributed to William Faulkner)

Anyway, here's the piece:

In that stone chamber, every servant in the house is gathered, and everyone is talking at once. But they stop when I walk in. Faces turn, scared and angry.

"This is your fault, Meg!"

"Mine?" I sidle over to the fireplace and ram one of the iron pokers into the depths.

"You let them in!"
I shake my head. "I was told to. She told me."
"They are dead!"
"Didn't you see?"
"Their faces--"
"The stink of them!"
"It's just seaweed," I mumble, not wanting to meet their eyes. "It's not that bad."
"Not that bad? The dead walk!"
"And you would say that, Meg, wouldn't you?"
I turn to that last accuser, Auld Mary, the boys' own nurse from years back. She's never liked me, not since I took her place at the Mistress's side. "What does that mean?" I snap.
"Well, they all three dallied with you, and they all three drowned. Is that natural?"

I shake my head. I've heard this muttered before. It is my ill-luck that condemned them, they say. "Ach. Away with your blether."
But this time Auld Mary goes further. "Is't you who called your lovers back?"
She might as well have said the word witch. Suddenly my creeping horror and all fear of the revenants leaves me, washed away in a tide of rage. I draw myself up as tall as I am able. "Me? Go stick yourself up the arse with a besom, you poisonous old biddy! What shite you talk!"
"I've seen them! I'm seen them, all three, with you!"
"And if they cared more dearly for my bubs that your withered dugs, who is to blame them?"
"Whore!" The word is like a slap.
"Ach!" I sneer. "You've eaten too many green apples and grown sour yourself." Grabbing up the poker again, I jiggle it at her. "If no one'll give you a poke, have you thought of using something else to stir your dried-out clam?"
There a muffled explosion of sniggers and Auld Mary turns away, too affronted to carry on.  The poker handle is already warm enough to hurt my hand, but I don't drop it and I don't let it show on my face. I'm not taking the blame for this. If I don't make them laugh at her, the accusations will become serious and I'll end up hounded out of the house, or worse. 
"While you two cats fight, what about them?" complains Jacob loudly from his seat at the table, and the mood swings abruptly back to sobriety. "What about the dead men?"
"What do we do?" the cook takes up, wailing.
I pull a face. "What do we do? Obey our Mistress. Take logs to the fireplace. Cook a fine meal. Light the sconces."
"But they are dead!"
"We must call the priest!"
I want to slap them all. "Are you such cowards? You're like a gaggle of wee girls squealing at a squashed toad! Did you cower in terror of them while they were living? Well, why should they harm you more now that they are not?"
"But what did they come back for?"
"That is not our business," I insist. "Someone go for the priest if you want, but it's our duty to serve the family, is it not? We cannot all leave." We cannot leave her here on her own, I add to myself. She doesn't see them for what they are.
The thought is enough to propel me back to the great hall.

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