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.


Laura said...

So true! One of the reasons I loved LOST so much was it was true to the idea that no one lives forever, not even the most beloved character on your show. If you are going to praise a piece of fiction for being real to life, you have to expect someone is going to die.

D.L. White said...

Good point! Killing your darlings can also mean being willing to kill off a character, even if they are your favorite one, if it serves the story and takes it in a direction that it needs to go in order to succeed.

Ah... I miss LOST...