“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” – Stephen King (not the first person to say it, but perhaps the most ominous)
It’s a common piece of advice to give to beginning writers, and it’s been attributed to everyone from Faulkner to Wilde. Slate.com contends, “But the earliest known example of the phrase is not from any of these writers, but rather Arthur Quiller-Couch, who spread it in his widely reprinted 1913-1914 Cambridge lectures “On the Art of Writing.” In his 1914 lecture “On Style,” he said, while railing against “extraneous Ornament”: ‘If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’”
Killing Your Darlings relates to editing. When you write a first draft, you may have a vague idea of the shape you want it to take, but you’re inevitably going to put in some things you don’t need. We refer to the things that are hardest to take out as our “darlings.” They don’t belong in the story, so they function like huge, rusty anchors that yank things to a halt. They have to go. Just cut the chain and toss them overboard, and the streamlined story’s faster and more buoyant.
You likely won’t be able to figure out what those things are until you’ve drafted the whole manuscript and are able to look at the shape of the arcs and the overall tone of the prose. That’s why MY most frequent piece of advice to writers in my classes is simply FINISH THE DRAFT. If you spend months revising and re-revising Chapter One, and when it comes down to it, the story really needs to start later, how hard will it be for you to axe the part you’ve put so much time and work into? Certainly harder than if the whole first draft was just you having fun, exploring the world you created, figuring out where your outline didn’t quite match up with the desires of your characters, and solving the problems that created.
This all has to do with perspective and detachment. A lot of times, the pieces that need to go are the things we’re most fond of. Or the words we’re most proud of.
But this is the cool thing . . .
Don’t just delete everything you think is super-cool. Sometimes you do things right in the first draft. Those parts you love? They’re not all darlings. It’s just the ones that don’t fit that have to go.
Look at the story overall. Is each plot element adding to the whole? Is every scene moving the plot forward or providing characterization? Are all the characters doing something important in the story? Any time the answer is no, that’s a darling.
We toss in whole chunks of darlings (in the form of subplots, characters, character hobbies, backstory etc. that aren’t needed) because they are something we like, something we wanted to explore. And those chunks could do very well in a different story. Just because you like roasted garlic, you wouldn’t put three tablespoons of it into a blueberry pie recipe, would you? It just doesn’t fit and leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. But you could take that same roasted garlic and make a truly fine pasta sauce.
Hold onto those things you liked. I tend to make a separate Word file related to each project labeled ProjectName – Cuts. Most of the stuff I put in there grows cold and uninteresting once I’ve moved on to the next project. (As tends to happen with things that have been killed and buried.) But every once in a while, there’s something I can pull out that inspires a short story, or that fits later into the same book universe.
But it reads so beautifully . . .
The most-proud-of part is harder to identify. You may not even be able to see the problem, even after your writing group, teacher, or beta readers have pointed it out. Worse, they may not be able to even articulate what’s wrong with it.
Often the problem is simply that you’ve veered into purple prose. (I said more on that topic here.) The sentence or passage you like so much simply doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the piece, and therefore distracts from it. If you can cut the whole statement/passage without disrupting the meaning of everything around it, it is also not adding anything substantive.
Remember, something that’s a darling for one writer may not be one for another. Look back at the top of this post, at the way King and Quiller-Couch said basically the same thing. Quiller-Couch’s words in one of King’s pieces would sound high-blown and awkward — an instant darling. In other words, a darling is anything doesn’t fit inside the surrounding work – and sometimes those surroundings may be more ornate, sometimes more spare.
If a line makes you feel smart – that’s probably a darling. If it feels mysterious or esoteric – probably a darling, too.
Sometimes the problem is that we know our own lives too well, and we want to impart meaning using very personal symbols and references that no reader is going to understand. These passages become dear to us because they hit us right in the heart. But if we step back and look at it objectively, they’re not going to hit a reader the same way. The reader is more likely to have no idea what we are talking about. So either we have to re-work the plot so that the passage has context – or simply cut the reference. (And if you keep a cuts folder, this kind of thing makes excellent poetry or journaling prompts. Maybe you will later be able to reveal the passage to the world re-worked into a brilliant personal essay.)
Effective writing – fiction or otherwise – is about clearly imparting information to your reader, in a way that displays internal logic and builds towards an emotional or moral statement. Fiction writing adds in the challenge of maintaining narrative tension, effective pacing and psychologically consistent characters. Anything that does not serve the above goals is self-indulgent and will not help you gain an audience for your writing. You have to remove anything that will get in the reader’s way. That takes discipline and detachment.
The process can be painful, but like any form of self-discipline, the final result is worth it.
So how do you become clinical enough about your own work to shape it? First off, you have to see the whole thing as in flux. Get rid of the notion that because you wrote it down a certain way in your first draft, that’s your characters’ reality. Editing a novel is basically solving a massively complex logic puzzle, and your audience is not going to buy it as “reality” until everything lines up.
If you have problems making yourself cut things, try marking all the potential cuts as strikethroughs. Then read over the works as though the strikethroughs aren’t there.
Second, be open to feedback from other people – and try to read that feedback as though it were for a book you picked up off the shelf, because that’s the caliber your work needs to be. You wouldn’t want your friends to let you walk into a job interview with spinach in your teeth. Likewise, you don’t want to submit to agents or self-pub without having eliminated the darlings that will distract or annoy your potential readers.
(Important note: not all feedback is created equal. Sometimes critiquers are wrong, or will disagree with each other. But if everyone who reads it is picking up on the same thing it’s time to consider that paragraph/element more critically.)
Third, get comfortable being critical about the things you watch/read. If you have the extra time, join a book discussion group or take a literature analysis class. If you can learn to admit that something you love to read has flaws, or even just minor points that could have been edited better, it becomes that much easier to turn the lens back on your own work.
If you want to learn more about how writing really is about letting go – from choosing between dozens of ideas to sending your carefully pruned manuscript out into the world – join the Saturday Night Write discussion group on March 17 where we will discuss Writing as Letting Go at the Flying Fish Restaurant in Arlington, TX from 4-6 PM. The event is free, and all are welcome.
NOTE: Photo was taken in 2017 in Odiba, Japan.