On Killing Your Darlings

“Kill your darlings” is one of the commonly dispensed pieces of writing advice.  What does it mean?  It means that no matter how precious and beautiful you think your words are, you have to murder them.

What do I think?

Well, I think it’s true, of course.

First, why is it true?  Why are we expected to “kill” our words if it’s already come out the way we wanted it?

We may write for ourselves.  And if we’re writing primarily for ourselves, sure, we have no reason to shoot anything dead.  But once you conclude that you want to share your writing, you take on a new responsibility: making yourself understood.

At that point your writing is not just for you anymore, and if your first reaction to being told you need to tone it up or slim it down is that the critic is Insulting Your Art or Just Doesn’t Understand, you’re forgetting that your job is to communicate with them.  Obviously they can be wrong.  But even if they are, isn’t there still something you can do to your writing so maybe they won’t say whatever they said?

Your favorite pieces of your writing are often the ones that need the most work, because at that point they’re kind of like your children.  You can’t see their flaws.  You need a third party to read them and see if the same picture is evoked in their minds.  If everyone loves that line, awesome.  But if people find it confusing or just “extra,” you may just have to accept that you’re predisposed to loving it because it came out of you, and either fire it from the piece or change it so it does evoke the reaction you want.

During my quest for literary agency representation, I got a couple comments from rejecting agents about my pacing or the sagging middle of my story.  Then I finally had one agent tell me she didn’t want to look at my novel unless it was between 85,000 words and 115,000 words because if you’re above that you’re just shooting yourself in the foot trying to get it published.  The novel was 146,000 words.  That’s a lot of words to cut.  And that was a draft that had already come down from 171,000 words.  What’s a writer to do?

Well, murder your darlings.

I don’t necessarily advocate jumping to word count ultimatums just because.  But in my case, after agents who were interested enough to request my full book dumped me based on pacing, I figured there was surely some chaff to find.  I began the brutal hunt for words to kill.

And oh, there was blood.

But it meant I had to think about the necessity of everything in the story.  No, not everything had to be plot-relevant, but if it was in the book, it had to justify its existence.  So I read through twice, putting each sentence on trial and making it defend itself.  If it enhanced character, introduced an element that was vital, moved the plot along, was amusing, or gracefully gave important information, it got to stay.  Many of my murder victims were sections that reiterated something I’d already established, or digressions into conversation that I liked but didn’t need, or details that may have been interesting but weren’t necessary, or indulgent internal dialogue.  Some of these sections weren’t murdered but just transformed, serving their purpose in a more concise way.

So guess what happened?

The parts that I did decide to leave in were that much more powerful.  I picked the best of the best.  I was terribly sad to see some of those scenes go, and I miss them, but I think the entire book is healthier without my personal preferences being the only ones that determined how the story was told.  And with practice, you learn to sense the difference between something you love without being able to justify it and something you love that just plain isn’t negotiable.

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