Nobody seems clear on who said it — Faulkner? Twain? Quiller-Coach? Grand Moff Tarkin? — but “kill your darlings” is held to be one of the most critical pieces of writing advice you’ll get. The question bigger than who came up with it is what exactly it means. Most directly, it implies that you should go through your manuscript and heartlessly execute those things you love as a sacrifice to the manuscript.
Is that right? Ehhh, yes, to a degree. Though I feel that it’s missing a vital component, and were you to rephrase that elegantly terse piece of advice it might end up as a clumsy-but-accurate “Go through your manuscript and kill the things that exist in the draft only because you love them.” Obviously, if you like a character or a turn-of-phrase, you shouldn’t simply slit its throat and let it bleed out in a dumpster just because you like it. That’s as bad as putting material into the script just because you like it. The problem comes in when you have material that is precious — “precious” bearing the connotation of “cute” and “over-valued.” It’s material you love just because you love it. It doesn’t connect. It doesn’t bond with the rest of the manuscript. A true “darling” is a lone wolf, a ronin ninja, a pretty little unibomber, a delicate snowflake. It does nothing for your work. It dances alone with itself in the corner, and you don’t have the heart to tell it that it needs to join the rest of the crowd or drink a capful of drain cleaner.
Being aware of your darlings is a tricky bitch. It’s like being in a bad relationship; of course you’re going to defend each and every darling. (“It’s okay, Mom. He hits me because I’m lippy. He loves me. He’s such a sweetheart and I don’t deserve him!”) You put a darling in, and you walk through the draft later on and you see it shining there in its little rocking chair, miles away from the rest of the work, and it just warms your heart. You start coming up with excuses to keep it around: “Oh, I plan on doing more with it in Chapter 34. I’m sure that readers will get the subtext of how this connects to the character of Doctor Detective Mike Hymen’s troubled past. Astute readers will realize that this captures the theme of the work!” And then the precious darling quietly gets up out of its chair, tip-toes over to you, and punches you in the throat. Then it giggles oh-so-sweetly. You love it.
So, what am I building up to, here?
Well, today I’m going to talk about how to spot, trap and kill your precious darlings. Darlings can be anything: a turn-of-phrase, a character, a word, a grammatical crutch.
Then, tomorrow, I’m going to do a little self-reflecting and publicly go through some of my darlings, hopefully dragging them out into the light where their True Faces will be revealed in the harsh light of the sun, and they’ll screech and thrash as their skin burns like match-lit parchment.
Autobots, roll out.
Get Ready For War
A lot of your unwillingness to prune the precious branches of your manuscript tree comes out of a mental unreadiness. This may sound odd, but you need to divorce yourself from the manuscript. It’s hard, because we put ourselves into the manuscript, and we do so because by investing ourselves in it, we make it stronger (or at least more interesting). That’s fine during The Process, but when you’re done, you have to take yourself out of the equation. Stop associating the manuscript with you and, more importantly, your self-esteem. Writers hang their self-worth on each word and page, and that’s not useful. You are not the sum of those pages.
Instead, you have to be ready for war.
Civil War, where it’s brother against brother, writer against manuscript.
By reorienting your thoughtspace (how’s that for a ridiculous sentence?), you can choose to enter the manuscript as surgeon, seamstress and assassin: looking for tumors to slice, hems to tighten, and evil men to destroy. Get in the game. Get your head around it. Know your mission going in, and you’ll be less likely to hesitate pulling the trigger.
(Oh, time does help with this, as I’ve noted in the past. Take a month away and you’ll be all the more prepared when it comes to darling-killin’ time.)
The Gopher Principle
Okay, nobody used to say that, but it’s accurate enough. When I used to go groundhog hunting with Dad, the groundhogs that caught a bullet were the groundhogs that stood up at the hole.
When you’re coming through the manuscript, it’s like you’re feeling it with your hand, and anytime you feel a raised area or a strange texture, it’s time to wonder: “Is this a darling?” Does it stand up at the hole? Is it a piece of language or a character or some other element that proudly preens and does a little dance? Is your initial gut reaction, “Oh, I remember writing that. I’m feeling quite clever!”…? Uh-oh. Looks like we got ourselves a darling over here. Line up the crosshairs, take a deep breath, and blow its guts out its asshole before you lose your courage.
The Box-Of-Chocolates Principle
Really, this is the same principle but differently stated: chocolate isn’t really that valuable to our body. Cocoa may be, but chocolates are more for our mental state than for our physical state — they’re mostly sweetness and creaminess, and any “health benefits” you gain from chocolate you gain more easily and in greater quantity from other foods.
Now, this isn’t really about chocolate — you eat what you want. That’s a different post.
This is about looking through your draft and finding those places of sweetness. Places that really hit the spot on the tongue. Again, you’re looking for places where you’re feeling particularly clever, or where you tried a concept or some phrasing that felt really nummy at the time.
Is it valuable for the body (meaning, the manuscript)?
If you cut it out of your diet, do you lose nothing?
Does it exist only to warm and soothe the mental state of the author — as in, you?
Can you gain greater health benefits from going a different direction?
Then smoosh the chocolate beneath your boot. Smash it. Don’t let your manuscript become flush with false joy, and don’t let it grow fat with empty calories. That’s what darlings are: complex carbohydrates and empty calories, bound up more with your pleasure than the health of the manuscript.
If it tastes like chocolate, it’s a darling.
Snap its neck like a Butterfinger bar.
Perform A Mock Execution
I get it. You’re still hesitant. You’ve come to love this little piece, and you’ve convinced yourself of its value — “It’s okay that he pushes me down the cellar steps whenever dinner is five minutes late. I love him and he loves me.” Fine. All’s I ask is that you perform a wee little experiment.
Theatrically kill it. It’s a false execution. You’re not really killing it. You’re just… taking it out of the draft for a little while to see how it reads, how it feels, how it lays. Copy the offending section. Paste it into a blank document. Let it sit there on its own for fifteen minutes. You’re not isolating it to punish it, heavens, no. You’re just… giving it a little vacation.
Come back after fifteen minutes (or, up to a whole day if you’re able). Now, check out the draft once more. Re-read it. Read it aloud. (Always read aloud. I will jackhammer that into your brain as often as I can.) Do you feel that it lays fine the way it is? Or do you say, “Y’know what? This is missing a little something-something. Needs more salt and pepper.”
If it’s okay without it — and I’ll bet 7 times out of 10 it will be — then the darling you’ve sequestered on its own is no longer on vacation, but now trapped in a Murder Room. Close that open window and let it die a swift death.
If you think it needs more spice, more flavor, put it back in. “Kill your darlings” is not meant to be a surly screed against flavor. Flavor is good, as long as flavor accompanies nutritional value. Again, to go back to the empty calories metaphor: darlings are garnish for the sake of garnish, or sweets just because you want sweets.
Darlings are not for the reader.
Darlings are all for you.
Hand Somebody Else The Gun
Fine. It’s time to do something you were going to do anyway (right? you were going to do this, yes?) — hand the gun to somebody else. And by “gun,” we mean “the red pen.” Please don’t go handing guns out. I don’t endorse that. Food for the homeless, sure. Guns to vagrants, not so much. I mean, unless you’re building an army? Then maybe that’s okay. An armed hobo army will damn near guarantee victory in most of your day-to-day problems. (Long line at the DMV? HOBO ARMY, ADVANCE.) But I won’t admit that I endorsed this if pressed. I will bail on you and leave you in the cold vacuum of space.
What were we talking about?
At some point, somebody’s going to have to read your manuscript. Preferably someone before you go submitting it somewhere, but if not, then an agent and an editor will be looking at it.
The great thing about other readers is, they don’t give a shit about your preconceived notions. They don’t know your darlings. They only know their own experience with the draft. It’s like decorating a room. You work for hours and hours and decorate a room and you think it’s beautiful and inviting and serves as the perfect nexus of your home. But then someone else comes in, they take one look around, and they vomit into their hands. They mumble something about “pink walls” and “ceramic clowns” and then run out of the room, gibbering and weeping and smelling of bile.
Now, you don’t have to change that room because only you live there.
A book isn’t for you. It’s for everybody else.
So when the reader finds those things that stand out — again, texturally, they’ll be attuned to the sore thumbs, rusted nails, and scaly patches of skin — she’ll call them out. Because they feel odd. They feel precious. Like little snowflakes nobody’s allowed to touch lest they melt. Readers don’t like cleverness that parades itself around. They like cleverness that feels a part of the whole; frankly, they don’t want you to know you’re clever. They don’t want you to do a ten-minute dance in the endzone. It’s enough that you scored the touchdown in an awesome way. Stop gyrating like an imbecile and get on with the game.
And that’s your truest sign that it’s time to pull the hammer back and put a slug between that darling’s eyes. Paint the walls with its brains. Say goodnight, Gracie.