Sunday, June 15, 2008

Kill Your Darlings?

So I read a lot of writing advice. Well, you do, don't you, when writing is a major interest and you spend most of your time on websites and forums for writers, or reading about writing, or about books, or whatever.

And one of the biggest pieces of advice I see is: kill your darlings.

And I don't agree with it.

Now, that doesn't mean I don't agree in theory, or that I think it's wrong all the time. Just the other day I cut an entire scene from my WIP, a good scene. It was exciting. It was action-packed. It had what I thought were a couple of really good lines.

But it didn't advance the story the way I needed it to. So it had to go. And I came up with something else, that I think works much better and is still exciting, but it more atmospheric and deepens the personal conflict and the emotional stakes and ups the danger even more than the original.

And obviously, in working with editors there are times when they tell you something doesn't work. And no matter how much I might not like it, I simply say okay and remove what they tell me to remove (99.9% of the time.) Because they're not me; they're a better judge of what works and what doesn't, or what feels unecessary or like repetition. The fun of editing, for me, is having someone to work with you and polish everything up, and experience has taught me that (again, 99.9% of the time) they're right, and the suggested changes make the book much stronger and better even if I grumble to myself about it or don't understand it at first. So in that case, yes, if it's one of your darlings on the editing chopping block you go ahead and swing the axe (I keep all of those in separate files, in case I ever have a chance to use them again and have them really work that time.)

But I'm not talking about that type of editing. I'm talking about the advice that tells you to ruthlessly excise any line or scene to which you are particularly attached, because if you like it that much it's probably showy or unecessary. And I just can't agree with that.

Because, logically, if you're removing all the lines and scenes that especially excite you, you're dulling down your work. You're altering your voice; you're taking yourself out of your book. And I think that's a mistake. It's those bits, the little jokes and the moments of grace, that make your book yours.

Here's a little example, a sneak peek from Demon Inside:

The Christmas season always had an air of time suspended anyway, as people spent their days at work eating rumballs and doing shots—which were basically the same thing, if Megan was doing the cooking—opening presents, running into other offices in the building with cookies and snacks…it was like a bubble existed, and in that bubble responsibilities disappeared.
Death was kind of the same way, although with far less tinsel and photocopying of private parts.

Now, you know what? I'm really fond of that little paragraph. It may not be the greatest paragraph ever written but I think it's pithy and fun and should make a reader smile when they get to it, which is especially important given that this book isn't as light as the first one.

According to the "Kill your darlings" mob, I should cut it out.

I know, I know. It seems like I'm being overdramatic, doesn't it? Like it should be obvious they mean kill only those lines and scenes which don't serve the story but which we clutch to our chests like a fifth grader with a picture of Zac Efron, stubbornly refusing to let them go.

But it doesn't always sound like that, and it's not always made obvious when that advice is given. It's the first piece of advice I tend to see people give new writers, and it bugs me.

Because the trick shouldn't be in killing your darlings, it should be in making the entire ms good enough that you don't need to have darlings. It should be in learning to be objective and decide what works and what doesn't, and I don't think "kill your darlings" conveys that well enough to someone just starting out. It should be in serving the story, and doing what needs to be done to serve the story, rather than abiding by "rules".

What oft-heard piece of writing advice do you disagree with?


Bernita said...

I so agree with you, December - as I often do.
Kill your darlings annoys me unspeakably. It precludes the writer ever, ever improving their craft and developing an objective eye capable of discerning what works and what doesn't.
Sometimes you know you've nailed it without doubt, yet, according to that "advice" you must immediately delete such lines and scenes.

December/Stacia said...

Exactly, Bernita. It encourages us to dull down our work, IMO, and like so much advice aimed at the brand new writer, I think it's damaging. The idea that some lines or phrases deserve to be killed simply because the writer has a particular fondness for them goes against all common sense.

Be prepared to kill your darlings if you must, absolutely. But automatically kill them? No.

Whirlochre said...

This is very interesting — and spectacularly coincidental.

I've spent most of the weekend selecting darlings to cast into oblivion via my blog (condemned criminals to be paraded round town before being hung, drawn and quartered), mainly because I have a few paras which seem to have become theme parks for all things heliotrope. Trouble is, as you say, when you bundle the the poor little creatures to the ground and loom over their twembling feathers wielding the Hatchet Of Unscrupulous Professional-esque How-Nous, it can seem sometimes like you're Destroying The Only Goddam Good Thing You Ever Did In This Cockamamie World. This is not to say that all frippery and gloss must bypass the censor just to make us feel good — heavens, that would be like Spock mind-melding with Tarantino — simply that, at the generational stage, it's necessary to inflate all angels in the hope they'll stay aloft to survive any future edits (which they will if they serve the story more than their own glory). Hard to be kind to your flickering spectres when you're wandering round, armed to the teeth, trying to kill every line, simile, was, had, etc to death.

laughingwolf said...

totally agreed, dee

killing off all your 'little darlings' leaves the tale bereft of 'personality', all 'left-brain'... and vacuous...

unable to think of other nags, too early in the day... and insufficient coffee ;)


I disagree with any writing advice that begins with "never" or "always."

BernardL said...

I second Kerry's opinion. :)

Seeley deBorn said...

Yup, Kerry's bang on.

Because sometimes the hero really does walk slowly across the room.

December/Stacia said...

Oh, it's very difficult, whirlochre. And yes, it must be done if your darling is standing in the way of your story. But when it adds something, I think those little darlings need to stay plunked on their fat little bottoms right where they are. :-)

Exactly, Laughingwolf. If I'd killed all my darlings my work never would have gone anywhere at all; it never would have been finished.

That sums it up so elegantly, Kerry. :-)

*nods* Yep, Bernard, she's right, isn't she?

And Seeley. Yes, sometimes they do. :-)

Whirlochre said...

Yes — 'never' and 'always' are too prescriptive, even if 99.99999999% true.


Just about to link (cue sci-fi docking sound and a few twinkly lights in the void)...

Charles Gramlich said...

Like many pieces of writing advice, "kill your darlings' is incomplete. Sometimes it's necessary and sometimes it's the kiss of death. Sometimes the darlings are what folks are reading for.

Another piece of advice like this is "show don't tell." It's impossible to "always" show. Sometimes telling information that moves the story along between dramatic scenes that are "shown" is necessary.

Anonymous said...

>>I'm talking about the advice that tells you to ruthlessly excise any line or scene to which you are particularly attached, because if you like it that much it's probably showy or unecessary. And I just can't agree with that.

Agreed! I see it sort of like playing Frankenstein with the mss. Cutting out the unneeded bits to make room for new and improved additions.

And I too agree with Kerry.

Robyn said...

I'm late, but I have to agree with Kerry. It seems there's always an author who breaks all the rules and then he's called visionary.

December/Stacia said...

The only "never" or "always" I believe in, Whirlochre, are ones like "Always do your best" or "Never stick a fork in a toaster."

Oh YES, Charles, Show Don't Tell can drive me batty at times. Isn't it easier and better to tell the reader that MC spent half an hour listening to Great-Aunt Martha whine about her bunions, than to force them to sit through it? Some things just don't need to be shown, and part of good writing is knowing the difference.

I just think it cuts out personality, Michele. Obviously everything should serve the story, but in a 90k story there's a bit of play sometimes.

Oh, yeah, Robyn, you see that all the time, and it's sort of a combination of "Yeah! Yay you!" and "Darn it!" Lol.

kirsten saell said...

"Never stick a fork in a toaster."

I do this all the time, although usually when the toaster is unplugged. Only been fried once or twice...

December/Stacia said...

And that, kis, is why I adore you. Because you're a rebel.

cindy said...

adverbs. i use them. sometimes, they are just right, and i do not hate on them just because they end in "ly". and no, i'm not being a "lazy writer". thanks.