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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Kill Your Darlings

"Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings." ~ Stephen King, On Writing

"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." ~ Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, British Author

"In writing, you must kill your darlings." ~ William Faulkner

Kill your darlings. Supposedly William Faulkner said it first and other authors have repeated the mantra over the years. It's one of the most crucial but most difficult pieces of writing advice to put into practice.  (And here you thought this post was about murdering loved ones. Silly you! Don't worry, friends, family and Gentle Readers, you're safe.)

If you are particularly in love with or enamored with a word or turn of phrase, a sentence, a passage, an idea within your writing, sometimes you get too attached to it and, even though you know deep down it isn't working within the greater piece, you just can't bring yourself to get rid of it.  Maybe it's an image you are really hung up on, but you've jammed it into a section where it's distracting or doesn't serve any purpose.  Maybe you've used the wrong word and the vocabulary distracts the reader, breaking that imaginary bubble so that they are pulled out of the story and are now aware of the writing.  This is not good.  (I am reminded of the word - Surreptitiously.  One day, Gentle Readers, I will tell you of the epic battle I had with a co-author about that word.)  Maybe your writing has crossed over into purple prose or perhaps you've wandered down a rabbit trail and have described in detail some wonderful thing that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.


But I love it, you say.  I can see it in my mind. It's a beautiful idea. I spent hours crafting it.  Well, that's why they say, "kill your darlings."  You love it.  It's your darling.  You're attached to it, but if it doesn't serve the story, then it must be cut.   Painful, but necessary.

This is one of many reasons why having excellent first readers and editor(s) is so helpful.  When you are so in love with a piece of your writing, it is hard to recognize or admit that it might not be working.  A good first reader and/or editor will let you know where to drop the hammer, and a good writer will listen to them.

But do not fear!  All is not lost!  Your beloved passage or turn of phrase doesn't have to be buried six feet under to push up daisies for all eternity.  Oftentimes, an idea or concept can be used elsewhere; either relocated to a more appropriate place within the story, or it can be saved for later.  I've read several accounts from writers who saved a scrap of an idea for years that later germinated into a successful short story or another novel altogether.

One of my friends introduced me to a local writer this past week. We hit it off well and we both write within similar genres. I'm looking forward to trading pages with her; she will be a first reader for me, and I will do the same for her.  It's a scary, painful part of the process, but it is absolutely 100% necessary for crafting a successful finished piece of writing.  If you don't have skilled, honest, critical first readers or an editor, then you should probably find some A.S.A.P.  And if you aren't willing to submit to the critiquing and editing process, then you probably shouldn't be writing.  

This blog post is a reminder to me, more than anything else, to always kill my darlings and to step out in trust and let others pre-read and critique my work. If you write, how do you go about editing your work? How do you find or select first readers?  Or, even if you're not a writer, what do you think of this idea of editing and critiquing in light of my previous post on being maliciously critical.  Do you see the difference?  Please leave me a comment and let me know.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

What a Really Bad Book Taught Me

I'm currently struggling to get through what is, quite possibly, one of the worst books I have ever read.  It's definitely in the top five worst, and I've been reading since I was four years old.  That's a lot of books to contend against.

Why struggle through a bad book?

Well, the short answer is this:  the best way to improve as a writer is to read a lot and write a lot.  Read good stuff to see how things are done well, and read bad stuff to learn what not to do.  Also, I'm slogging through it because I was dared to do so by a fellow writer and friend.  He begged me to read it so we could share in the misery together, as he was already neck-deep into the awfulness.

It's so bad.  I mean really bad.  I kind of want to punch the main character in the face.

My friend and I had a long phone conversation where we went back and forth listing off all the ridiculous plot contrivances, annoying characters, missed opportunities, and completely unbelievable dialog and we got to laughing so hard I was crying and couldn't breathe.  It's so bad, it's unintentionally enjoyable; like laughing at a bad B-movie.  It's almost too easy to make fun of it.

Once I dabbed my tears away and caught my breath, I said I felt guilty for making fun of it because at least the author 1. put something out there, 2. got it published, and 3. is successful (at least by bank account standards - it's a national bestseller) and here I can claim none of those things.  I've only mustered up enough courage to submit one short story (and it got rejected).  I am not even sure I'm that talented of a writer. Who am I to criticize a successful, national, best-selling author? (Not to imply that an intellectual or thoughtful reader can't assess a piece of written work and identify what was executed well and what didn't work.  I was just feeling a little too puffed-up and superior over this author and realized it.)   

 Sympathizing with my guilt feelings, my friend then asked the question, "Well, let's talk about what she got right."  So we listed off the things the author actually did well in the novel.

Even though the book is bad, it is still a gift in that I'm learning a lot from it.

The whole thing got me to thinking about our culture and how we are so quick to jump in and poke fun and criticize, or point out what is wrong - not just with a written work but with everything.  I know people who only like to watch the beginning of American Idol because they like to laugh at the contestants who fail miserably.  Those contestants are more courageous than most - at least they tried and put themselves out there.  We're like a pack of hungry wolves, sniffing around for the next sign of weakness, or the next thing to ridicule or tear down, and when we find it we pounce.  Why do we enjoy reading movie reviews wherein the reviewer hated the movie and tears it to shreds?  Why do we take glee in that?  A crew of hundreds spent months on crafting a film and we reduce it to a "one-star" failure in just a few scathing paragraphs.

Why is it so easy to tear people down, and so much harder for us to build people up?

I'm not implying that we shouldn't be honest about what is good or bad.  Constructive, honest criticism is good and necessary in any field in order to learn and improve your craft.  It's also necessary, as a consumer, to read informed reviews and know what is worth our time and what isn't.  Specifically, what I'm puzzling over in this little essay, is the eagerness and the joy we take in tearing things and people down. It's not an attractive trait. If we could only focus some of that energy on building people up, focusing on what they did right, focusing on where they succeeded, and only then following it up with gentle correction or constructive criticism, wouldn't that give them more courage to try more, to try harder, to try again - to be better next time?

So what do you say?  Let's make a deal. 

Let's try to show a little more mercy, and encourage more people to try their hand at writing, painting, singing or whatever they're pursing.  They may not be the next Rembrandt, but it may make our world a little brighter, and allow room for other timid folks to be a little bit more courageous.

And no... I'm not telling you the name of the book.