Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Goodbye My Darlings

"Kill your darlings" is classic writing advice. What do you do with the bodies afterwards? 


Killing my darlings means not just wrenching characters out of manuscripts unceremoniously, but also slashing Golden Words.

In my current WIP, my opening scene featured five women having lunch together; my protagonist, Julie, and four other women. In my mind, the four “extras” were distinctive women with different looks, different personalities, and different backgrounds. In the first draft I included little vignettes of biography for each of them. Two of them had children, one was divorced and frantically looking for a new husband, one was having a long-term affair, etc. But as the draft advanced, I realized that there wasn’t enough action from these women to warrant five of them. One had to go. I liked Robin, but she got the boot. She was too damn nice and really didn’t have anything to do with the plot. All the others had a role. I took Robin’s lines and gave them to one of the others, and I don’t miss her one bit.

That isn’t to say that Robin didn’t serve a purpose. The purpose she served, though, was in helping me learn who my main character was. She was a foil for my getting to know Julie. Robin and Julie had in-person interchanges and conversations on the phone that helped me learn Julies likes and dislikes, her fears and longings. The problem was that Robin didn’t serve to move the story along. Each of the remaining women in the opening scene had a pivotal role. Robin had to go.

The same thing happens with Golden Words. These are words that sound wonderful when I write them. They are artistic, elegant, heartfelt, literary, poignant…or some combination. 

Sometimes they are repetitions of things I’ve already said, but are so meaty that they demand repeating. Even if they are repetitive, they seem essential until I read the manuscript again, and I realize I already said that, maybe more than twice. The decision I have to make is not just which passage sounds best, but where it fits best into the scheme of the book, and which version is best suited to the tone of the story.

You have to learn how characters and language are suited to the story you are writing. If you are writing noir or romance (which I have argued in the past are closely related), you can get away with lyrical passages.

 If you’re writing police procedurals, thrillers, or cozies, beware lyrical language. If you are writing thrillers, the daffy muffin lady may have a place in your book, but probably not, unless she’s a hapless victim. And assassins probably won’t do very well in your cozy, nor will someone who curses a lot and is fond of bashing people around.

So the question is, what do you do with these darlings when you cut them? Early in my writing career, I used to save them to a separate file, thinking I’d use them one day. Such beautiful language! Such a lovely character! Such a moving love scene! Such a thrilling fight scene! How could I let those be lost to posterity? Did I ever use them? Not really. Sometimes I found that a paragraph contained information that I could use elsewhere in the book I was writing. But only for the book I was working on at the present.

As it turned out, I found that if I tried to mine those passages for other books, I didn’t remember why I was so in love with them. I realized that each book has its own distinctive flavor, its own characters and language suited particularly to that book. Trying to slot a character or language from another book simply doesn’t work for me. Notice the last two words: “for me.” It’s possible those things work for other writers.

I don’t save the darlings anymore except when I know they may be useful later in the same book. But I have never used them for a new book, even a book in the series I write. I remember hearing Joan Didion say that a writer should put everything she knows into every book, not to hold anything back. She said you may worry that you won’t have anything left to say in the next book, but you will. I think what she meant was that each book has its own life and that you discover that life when you are writing it. Even if you were to use a character you had cut from another book, the character would have a different function in the new book and would deserve a fresh perspective.

In other words, kill your darlings, and leave them dead!  


Paul D. Marks said...

I used to, and still do sometimes, save cut darlings for other works, but like you, Terry, I pretty much never go back to them. Like some people in our lives they were right for a certain time and place and, in this case, story. But I will also do the other thing you do and save pieces I've cut to use in a different place in that work. But if they don't find a place there they are lost to eternity and the world will just have to suffer their loss ;-) .

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Right on, Terry, you have to know when to ixnay the daffy muffin lady.

Terry said...

Paul, we are all the worse for loss of your golden words. And Dietrich...well, you know. The muffin lady.

Dana King said...

I still keep a file of what I cut from a book, but, as you said, it's really only for things that might be useful in this book. It's rare I can use something in another book, and I write series.

On the other hand, I don't put everything into every book. It's not because I'm afraid I'll run out of stuff, but because the book would be 1,000 pages long. I write mostly procedurals and I'm always looking for interesting but quickly resolved cases I can use to show that real cops don't work only one case at a time. If I kept adding them them as I came up with them there would be no end to it. Those I keep in separate files and work through them when putting together the next book, to see which will fit.

Terry said...

Good point, Dana. Who wants to read a 1,000 page book (although I have read an 800 page book and loved it).

Susan C Shea said...

Agree that once they're dead, they will probably stay dead, no matter how much we admire them, or ourselves for creating them.