02 June 2014

Killing Your Darlings

Susan Rogers Cooper
Susan Rogers Cooper
You may have heard the instruction to beginning writers, 'Kill your darlings,' meaning if you like a phrase or passage too much, your readers won't react well to such self-indulgence. Today's famous author gives the words an entirely new meaning.

Susan Rogers Cooper is one-half fifth-generation Texan and half-Yankee, but the Texas side seems to be winning. She is the author of two dozen books: twelve books in the Milt Kovak series, ten in the E.J. Pugh series, and two books in the Kimmey Kruse series. Susan lives in the Austin area and is the grandmother of three precocious children.

And now, as promised…

Killing Your Darlings

by Susan Rogers Cooper

The year was 1983 and my family had just moved to Austin, Texas. I was still buzzing from my first fiction sale – a romance sold to a company called Listen to Love, romance novels on audio-cassette (it went belly-up within a year, although my $100 check did clear).

I saw an ad for story submissions to a prestigious local anthology and reworked a short story I'd already written. The submission criteria was several hundred words less than the story I'd written, so I went about dealing with that. In the story, my angst-ridden main character, going through a mid-life crisis, goes into her attic and finds a box from her teen years, full of Ricky Nelson 45s and other memorabilia of the artist, all based on my own pre-teen fixation with all things Ricky. I tore out the scene – mindlessly and with great aplomb. The story was submitted and bought and I was thrilled. One month later Rick Nelson died in a plane crash.

I'd always heard the expression “killing your darlings,” but I thought it was figurative, not literal. So this is my confession, such as it is. And, by the way, the prestigious local anthology – having been in business for over ten years before my submission – also went belly-up immediately after that year's publication, and I never got the fifty bucks I'd been promised.

In 1987, I decided to write a mystery, which I did, and sent it off to various over-the-transom houses. After the third devastating rejection, I decided on a new mental approach. Instead of “getting published,” my new goal would be to paper the downstairs half-bath with rejection letter wall paper. I only got part of one wall done. Since that time I've had close to thirty books published and, as of this writing, I've not killed anyone else – except on paper – no more publishing venues have gone belly-up on my behalf, and I've been able to tear down the half-finished wall paper in the downstairs bath.

It's the little things that make a career, right?


janice Law said...

Most of us could paper not only a whole bathroom but several other rooms as well!
You must be doing something right.

Fran Rizer said...

Thanks for sharing your rocky beginning in the world of publishing which led to a smooth road beyond. As a songwriter (pre novelist), the first time one of my songs was performed on stage, the lead singer came off stage, collapsed, and died of a heart attack right there. I tied up with a young rocker in California who did a great demo. The talented young lady who sang backup with him was mugged and killed in LA only a week later. I can relate.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Hilarious--it's so comforting to know that we all go through the same stuff. I don't think I've precipitated any real-life deaths yet, but it ain't over till it's over!

Leigh Lundin said...

Great introduction, Susan.

In my early days, I received a contract from a publisher who promptly went bankrupt. I'd hoped at the time it wasn't because they were a poor judge of material.

Fran, that's horrifying! That would stop anyone cold in their tracks.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Susan! I'm glad you made it with a surviving publisher.

Unknown said...

I've known for 24 years there's something strange about you and now I discover the truth. Now where shall we hide the next body???

Jeff Baker said...

During my brief comedy career I was hired by our local comedy club as the opening act (after a bunch of open-mic nights.) The club went bankrupt before I could get on stage! I was set to do an internship at a radio station and they closed down! "I feel your pain!" :)

Dixon Hill said...

Well, it sounds as if you had a bit of a bumpy takeoff, but a smooth flight since then. And, you know what they say: Any landing you can walk away from ...


galealbright said...

In writing classes I've attended, the instructors always talk about murdering your darlings. It can be a tough call. I'm glad you didn't have to do much wall papering on your bathroom. Good for you.