Thursday, June 20, 2019

You Always Hurt the One You Love

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

What if you advised songwriters to throw out the prettiest strains they’ve written?

Or painters? That’s a beautiful portrait! Cut it to shreds!

Architects? What a magnificent building. Now blow it up.

Chefs? This meal is delicious. Throw it into the trash please.

Some of Faulkner’s darlings:

No one expects other creative types to discard their flashes of brilliance, so why are writers expected to do so? Because, for some reason, we love to dictate rules in the writing biz. I’ve given my thoughts on rules in the past on this blog (viz. and ), so I won’t do it again. But I will say that I ignore this rule about killing your darlings as well.

Of course I occasionally delete a passage that has turned out a shade too purple, but that’s not because it was brilliant. It’s because it was too much. And I’m not saying that I churn out gems with every couple of keystrokes, but I do care—very deeply—about language, its building blocks, syntax, and rhythm. I don’t believe the story is the only important element in fiction. Characters and words matter to me, at least in my own writing.

I sometimes stare at a word for hours (hyperbole), thinking it’s not quite right. I’ll mark it and come back to it later until it’s right. And, yes, I’ll even consult a thesaurus from time to time, not because I want to use a twenty-five-cent word when a nickel’s worth will do. Neither is it because I don’t know the word I’m grasping for. Rather, it’s because I can’t remember it. I also forget where I left my keys. So, the proscription against using a thesaurus is another rule I break with frequency and relish.

As for what I do with the text I’ve deleted, it’s never really lost. Since I save my work with a new name every two or three days, there’s always always a trail of past versions. Today, in fact, I realized I’d deleted a necessary passage somewhere along the way in my next book, TURN TO STONE. So I went back through many of the eighty-plus versions of the manuscript until I found it. And it’s back in the book just in time for final edits.

So my short answer to today’s topic is, no, I don’t often kill my darlings. But when I do, I save them in my progressively named digital filing system for emergency rescue. Oh, and I don’t like people telling writers how to write in their own voice. But you knew that already.


Frank Zafiro said...

I dig your take, Jim. I think some people out there misinterpret this maxim, and it is often used as advice that is misapplied.

If it doesn't deepen character or setting, or move the story forward somehow (see how purposefully broad that is?), my own editing process is that it might have to go . I always thought of "Kill your darlings" as an addendum to that self-imposed guideline, as in "This is true, even if you really love the passage."

Not every work requires such a sacrifice. And you're right, no one should dictate writing rules to someone else. I'm fonding of saying that if your process works for you, it's a good process.

One thing I've never heard before is your analogy/comparison to other artistic pursuits -- songwriting, painting, cooking, etc. And it's brilliant. I also think it can help people understand where the 'kill your darlings' mantra has some merit, and where it doesn't.

When perfecting a dish, if a cook loves onion, but oninion doesn't work in this dish because it overpowers the balance of the other flavors, then s/he might want to kill that darling (or cut it back)...IF that balanced taste is what s/he is striving for. If s/he loves onions (and who doesn't, really?), and this is a dish with strong oninion flavor, then that's the dish, and leave the ingredient as is.

I once cut about thirty thousand words from a 150K word book. They were flashback segments, and just absolutely killed momentum. Believe me, those were some darlings, and they died a reluctant death. Two of the three characters with flashbacks had their's integrated into the present as brief recollections. One (the villain) still got a flashback because I found a way to mitigate the momentum issue. But it was still a brutal death. a stroke of Ziskinian magic, I was able to use one set of the deleted flashbacks as part of a short novel, Chisolm's Debt. So these darlings were resurrected. Basically, it was a zombie book, from a craft perspective.

Anyway, your post obviously fascinated me -- look at me ramble.

I'm off now to read your linked blog posts.

Susan C Shea said...

The same topic is current in visual art circles right now because a previously unknown painting by Monet, over which he had chosen to paint a different one, has been literally uncovered by a conservator. But Monet chose to paint over it because he didn't like it. Stretched canvas being a lot more expensive than paper, many artists re-use the medium rather than trash it. It was a 'darling' he decided to kill. I'm just glad that if I decide a piece of writing doesn't reflect the best I can be, all I have to do is hit Delete!

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