Strangling My Darlings In A Clawfoot Bathtub (Part Two Of Two)

And we’re back.

If you missed it — and why would you? were you drunk? — I did a post yesterday ruminating on that old writing chestnut, “Kill Your Darlings.”

Your manuscript will have darlings, and you need to choke those little goblins to death.

Obviously, each manuscript is home to its own unique goblins, but most writers have their own consistent goblins, too. We all have those little bugaboos that show up from draft to draft, cackling and dancing and mirthfully masturbating. Those gobbos dance over the line, crossing over from “the author’s style” and becoming “the author’s crutch” in a heartbeat.

It’s time then to drag many of my own writing goblins out into the light. They will screech and gibber. They will pull great clumps of hair out of their blistered scalps. In the dark they are illusory and beautiful, but in the light they are froth-mouthed imps-of-legend and must be twisted until broken and made dead.

I use this space to parcel out clumps and clots of writing advice, but the secret is, I do that so that I can apply the advice to myself above all others.

This, then, is that.

Here are my darlings, lined up against the wall. Blindfolded and smoking their last smokes.

An Addiction To Dashes

Dear dashes, I fucking love you, love, Chuck.

Or maybe that should be, “Dear dashes — I fucking love you — love — Chu–ck–“

–!

I dunno.

Point is, I love these little guys. In case you’re not familiar, multiple dash-types are on the menu. The en dash, the em dash, the diggity dog dash, the Dashiel Hammett, the 50-yard-dash. I don’t know that I use them right. I don’t care. I love them. They’re like little spears. Like little daises on which my words can sit and stare out over all the other weaker words. Like little laser bolts or squinting eyes.

And I have to get shut of them.

Dashes on their own are not poisonous (I mean, unless you dip them in venom). They’re a functional part of punctuation and needn’t be eschewed entirely. Ah, but therein lies one of the Truths About Darlings: they work fine in the proper context, especially when the author does not overuse them.

Me, I like to overuse them.

Dashes facilitate what feels like a conversational form of writing but what actually ends up as stuttering, hitching and uncertain.

I still like ‘em. But going through a second draft always means pruning the shit out of those little bastards. It’s like clipping thorns off a rose stem. The metric for me on whether or not to keep a dash is, “Does the sentence sound better and clearer when I rewrite it without this little barb?” At least 75% of the time, the answer is yes.

I Need A Semi-Colonoscopy

No, that’s not a pun. It’s wordplay. The rule is, it’s a pun when you say it, but it’s wordplay when I say it. Shut up. No, you shut up! Shut up.

I love semicolons.

I won’t get into the primary usage of the semicolon, because Grammar Girl does that for me. I like semicolons for the reason she states: it brings a new look to the sentence, adding a little variety, and it further draws a more overt connection between two ideas.

Like with dashes, the semicolon by itself is not a problem.

For me, maybe it’s an ego thing. The semicolon is a rara avis; many writers don’t know how to use it properly. See how I just used one? I didn’t even mean to. It just happened. It fell out of my fingertips like a turdlet tumbling out the bottom of a pair of track pants. I feel awesome when I use a semicolon. I feel special. Like I know something other people don’t. I mean, I can’t throw shuriken, but if I could, I’d probably be throwing them all the time, because how bad-ass is that? I’d just wander down the street, winging those throwing stars at any moving target I could find (football, squirrel, kid on a Big Wheel).

My usage of semicolons therefore crosses the line from “actually useful” to “clever for the sake of being clever.”

That means it’s a darling.

That means it gets shot in the mouth.

So-Called “Authentic” Dialogue

When I someday do that post on dialogue, I’ll surely get into this with greater depth, but dialogue is a tricky widget. Many popular authors use dialogue in a way where the characters are effectively the mouthpieces for their agendas above, say, their actual experiences as that character. (Dan Brown, I’m looking at you.) The dialogue feels mostly the same. It feels crackers-and-sand dry. It doesn’t feel real. I don’t like that.

I like dialogue that feels real, or at least gives the illusion of reality. Mamet’s dialogue feels real the way people interrupt each other and the way those characters bleed through the words they’re saying, but it’s a clever ruse: nobody speaks like Ricky Jay except probably Ricky Jay. (Actually, I’d love to know if Mamet actually talks like Mamet. Does David Mamet speak in Mametian dialogue?)

It’s that “illusion of reality” part that’s pretty hard. You want to strive for authentic dialogue, not true dialogue. Authenticity is the illusion of reality, where reality is just reality, and reality is actually painful. Listen in on the way people actually talk, and then try to write it down. It’s tricky to understand, and worse, it doesn’t read well even if that’s how it’s spoken. Heck, you can see this watching any goddamned reality show. Some of it is surely scripted, but the dialogue on, say, The Hills? It’ll make you want to take out your eardrums with a soldering iron.

So, dialogue is a balancing act, and my first draft always ends up on the wrong side of the authenticity train. I overwrite dialogue because I want the characters to sound like the characters, to speak in ways that convey conversation rather than an imposition or refutation of agenda. It makes the characters feel more unique, and “unique” can swiftly become like that kid in school who wears weird clothing just because he likes the attention (even if the attention comes from bullies throwing bags of dog shit at him as he rides his bike home). When unique becomes precious, it’s time to execute with extreme prejudice.

What it means for me is that I have to go through and really tighten. I wring the dialogue out like a sponge, evacuating the excess moisture. It’s fine in the long run, but it’s a darling that hid itself well.

Profanity Is My Fruit, Profanity Is My Wine

“What?” you say in mock horror. “Profanity? Here? No!”

To that I say, “Fuck you, fuckball! Shitcock! Bitchmidget!”

And then I swiftly add, “Sorry. I’m really sorry. Sometimes I get carried away.” And then I buy you a smoothie to try to salve the verbal wound.

Profanity is my bread and butter. It tastes warm, complex, inviting.

Here, it works. I fling profanity like monkeys fling poo, and you all laugh and clap your hands and then I ape the clapping-of-hands because that’s all I can do is to mimic your behavior. And in that way, we stand on our respective sides of the glass and we all learn from one another. Or something.

In fiction, though, I have to pull back.

My latest novel is murky — nay, is turbid — with profanity.

Now, this is in part because the main character is a piss-and-vinegar type of gal. She mouths off like a sailor. That’s fine, to a degree, but once more that’s the nature of all darlings, innit? “To a degree.” I had to pull back on the profanity so that when she was using it, it felt more notable and natural. Sure, you listen to some people speak and it’s suddenly, “This fuckin’ guy he fuckin’… did this thing, and I was all like, ‘Dude, quit that shit,’ and he was all fuckin’ like, ‘Fuck you, dick,’ and then…”

Fuck, man.

That’s too much. The potency of the profanity is lost with overuse, and further, it truly gums up the sentence. (And that goes back to the earlier note: dialogue must feel authentic, not true. Yes, people might actually speak like that. That doesn’t mean it’s interesting to read. It’s why local color is hard to use effectively.)

Sometimes, profanity is a beautiful motherfucker strutting its shit on the catwalk.

Which means I have to trip it, and when it falls, stick an icepick in the back of its brain.

Mushy, Weak, Wobbly Words

Maybe, actually, really, almost, sort of, kind of, very, theoretically, mehh, meeeehhhhhh.

You want your writing to sound conversational.

But you don’t want it to sound like uncertain conversation. You don’t want it weak-in-the-knees.

Writing should be strong like bull. Its cock a pillar, able to break other pillars.

You look over this blog, though, and you’ll see a wealth of weak-willed turd words, truly, to a degree, sure, obviously. It’s a blog, so I’m not going to get paranoid about eradicating them, though I do make a pass to trim some of them out. They’re not terrible in total, and some can lend to a stylistic flair, but it’s often too easy to default to that as your excuse. “My writing doesn’t suck. It’s just my style.”

Well, fine. Then your style involves copious amounts of sucking.

I don’t attack it here with extreme prejudice because then I’d fail to blog every day. There comes an element of sacrifice, a war between Quality and Quantity, and where the Perfect becomes the enemy of the Good.

In fiction, be it a novel or a screenplay or whatever, you are afforded the luxury of greater quality. This is because you have more time. So use it. I do. I go through and find those Junk Drawer Words. They don’t stick out like precious nubbins, but instead are little divots and pits — potholes in the language where my experience stumbles.

They are darlings. Junky, shitty, weak-willed darlings.

They get the Mozambique. Two in the chest, one in the head.

Pop, pop. Pop!

That’s Just The Chef’s Tasting Menu

I assure you, draft to draft, I have a lot more goblins that need a good dragging-into-the-light. There, they writhe and hiss and die under the vigilant gaze of the sun.

The easiest way to know if something is a darling is to cut it out and rewrite without it. Does it sound better? Cleaner? Clearer? Then you just found a darling and properly exterminated that grubby fucker. Good for you.

How about you, Faithful Terribleminds Readers?

What darlings do you find popping up from draft to draft?

What goblins molest your manuscripts with cackling maw and greasy fingers?

28 comments

  • I have this problem in that I write super awesome and need to tone it down for the mundanes to not have their heads asplode.

    In other news, yes, agreed, very much. Especially the em dashes. Option -, baby, Option -.

    • Cam:

      You are too awesome for words. You are yourself a darling, and must be terminated.

      Josh:

      Pulp Fiction. Yes. Reservoir Dogs, too. Thing is, the dialogue there pulls double- or triple-duty. It exists to serve and sound natural, but it also conveys character and advances the story-slash-plot.

      — c.

  • One of my darlings is somewhat Tolkeinesque. I love descriptions. I paint with words, taking the image from my mind and laying it out on the page one syllable at a time. To me, they’re beautiful and poetic. To others, they’re boring and trite. In other words – they’re darlings.

    Pop pop. Pop!

    In other news, some of the most natural dialog I’ve ever experienced occurs in Pulp Fiction. I’m serious. Watch the scene in the beginning with Jules and Vincent, and pay attention to the tone, pacing and word choice in their dialog. It is exactly the way a couple of normal guys would talk on the way to a job. It just so happens that Jules and Vincent have the job of shooting kids in the face.

  • I am a comma-splicing lint-licker. I probably over/misuse dashes, too.

    I think I do dialog pretty well. I’ve been told I evoke emotions well – indeed, I’ve made a few people mist-up with my words, in the proper and good way. I suspect I’ve also made some people cry for other reasons.

  • There was a lot of amazing information here, and examples that correctly illustrated why the ‘little darlings’ hurt. I read this twice, just to make sure I didn’t miss the most important part of the entire post.

    “Bitchmidget.”

    You sir, win. Congratulations, go let eveyone you know that you just won. If they ask what, tell them “all of it”.

    As much as I love that one, I notice that fucked up compounds are one of my darlings- likely because it is just so tempting to do so in fantasy, and who the hell is going to tell you that you’re wrong? Puppystrudel? Fuck yeah! Don’t blame me if you don’t have an imagination, fuck you! Stop stifling my creativity!

    • I would pet, then eat, puppystrudel.

      Fantasy definitely is the bearer of many darlings, I think. Largely because it’s so easy to do it. Blank canvas, a weird playground — go play! Except, that’s not always fun. (It’s perhaps why I prefer fantasy that uses more modern language or carries fewer fantasy tropes to fruition.)

      — c.

  • My biggest darling is complex sentence structures in general. I keep packing the damn things down until they sway under the weight, when I could just as easily (and more clearly) give another sentence part of the job.

    I have to go through with a machete and hack the fuckers apart.

  • “I think” is my darling. When I write a blog post I actually have to go back through the post and remove this phrase.

    I think that this phrase is implied, because since I’m writing down my opinions, it can be assumed by the reader that I’m thinking them.

    I think that this is a very common “darling” for writers.

    I think that this phrase speaks to a lack of self confidence.

    I think is a way of protecting myself from making a statement that actually sounds like I believe it.

    The fact that I’m aware of this issue makes it easier. I can go through my documents and delete “I think” and make my writing about a hundred times stronger with a simple step.

    Often, when I’m writing, I let myself have my darlings for the first draft, just to get the ideas out and on the screen – then I go back through and let my inner editor go wild.

    Yes, my inner editor goes wild. It’s not as exciting as you might imagine.

  • …how would one pronounce “Mametian”, were one to make the attempt? Ma-may-ee-an? Ma-may-tee-an? Ma-may-shee-an?

    Ssssusan?

    [Oh, now you’re just doing it on purpose!]

    • “Fuck you, that’s how you pronounce Mametian.”

      (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

      JRB:

      My inner editor takes its top off at Mardi Gras.

      Given that my inner editor is a fat man with coffee-stained man-teats, this is less exciting than one would think. But he enjoys it, which is all that matters.

      “I think” is definitely an easy crutch, good call. In fact, that brings up a good point: you can use variations on darlings and trick yourself into believing they’re not darlings. “I think” could be easily written “in my opinion,” or “I believe,” or “I suspect,” or a hundred other heads-of-the-hydra. I’m guilty of it, for sure.

      — c.

  • I’m a ly-er, myself. Slowly. Turgidly. Excitedly erectedly. I love those little bastards, and it’s wrong. When I go back to edit work, I have to adopt a slash-and-burn policy that would put Amazon developers to shame.

  • Starting paragraphs with “So, …” or otherwise using folksy, conversational openers.

    I also overuse “At the end of the day”, but that’s a bad habit, not a darling.

    Many many more.

    -Rob D.

    • Rob:

      A lot of these are certainly more “bad habit” than “darlings” — darlings being a thing that stands proudly like a preening peacock — but all told it’s good to be aware of our limitations whatever we name them. :)

      — c.

  • Mushy words and phrases, big time. I hate it, too, because it’s a stereotypically feminine speech/writing habit. Maybe, probably, perhaps, I think… I delete these things whenever I notice them, which is not nearly as often as I should. (Except for those rare cases where I really do want to stress that something isn’t certain.)

    I also use a lot of useless, redundant phrases to start off paragraphs and sentences. I try to stomp that out, too, with similar semi-success. My really big sin? Using “In short, …” at the end of a book review.

  • Very nice! And yes expletives can be taken too far. “Deadwood” loved expletives. I think I saw the show for the first time during mid season and the F bomb was probably shot out 20 to 30 times in a minutes time. lol. Lost a lot of power that way. :P

  • Gloria hit it on the nail about overusing powerful words (like swears), it loses the shock so quickly. That is something I am constantly working on watching when I try to write something when I am the narrator. I’m putting some conscious effort into putting expletives in at specific point to make them more powerful and make them mean something, not just be edgy and hip.

  • Best example I’ve ever seen of rarely-used expletives being more powerful:

    In senior year of high school, I developed debilitating headaches. Long story short, after months of agony, a chiropractor looked at the x-rays he’d taken (which went from knee to head) and asked if I’d been to see a dentist about my headaches, because he believed he spotted impacted upper wisdom teeth up against my sinuses.

    Mom made the appt. with the dentist to have full x-rays taken. We got to the office, and they said they’d switched my appt. to be with their TMJ specialist, because they believed my headaches were due to TMJ. After several minutes of arguing with them, my mother, who at the time I’d NEVER heard utter a swear word, said, “Take the goddamn x-rays!”

    There was a moment of silence, they took the x-rays, I had surgery to remove two fully-formed wisdom teeth from up against my sinuses, and my headaches went away.

  • My darlings? Oh, the dash and the semicolon. Absolutely.

    I’m also a slut for introductory clauses. You know, the bits that go in front of a sentence? Seeking foresight and context, they clutter the shit out of whatever comes next. Those worthless hangers-on, glomming themselves onto phrases in the name of artistry and prose? Hanging on by a comma, they sweep themselves along on the coattails of …

    Excuse me.

    BLAM BLAM BLAM.

    Just get to the damn point. I have to tell myself this a WHOLE LOT.

    • Deadwood is on one hand an example of profanity’s overuse, though I’ll argue there that I don’t feel it to serve as a “darling.” Rather, over time the profanity becomes part of the fabric of the show; it may lose its overall impact, but it becomes so ingrained into the product that it’s more like a general saltiness rather than a sharp flavor spike.

      — c.

  • I’m sure I have darlings, and someone may cheerfully point them out to me, but I will blissfully ignore them because I AM AN ARTIST. Muahahaha. (No, seriously.)

    My freshman English class at Blinn College focused upon rhetoric. This also included spotting logical fallacies and writing informative and persuasive papers. My instructor was a former journalist, so her insights were great. She was a strong advocate for assertive language (as opposed to the mushy and wobbly words), and helped us figure out how to integrate that into our writing. Mentally, I translated it into, “Write like you know *exactly* what you’re talking about: you’re the expert.” In other words, be that cocksure son-of-a-bitch who you want to dislike, but can’t because you know he’s right.

  • The words “like” and “that” creep into my writing a lot. Useless buggers.

    Not only do I try to weed out my darlings, I get the help of my wife in doing it. She’s never afraid to tell me something sounds stupid or that I’m overusing a word. I don’t even argue with her about it anymore, because she’s right 90% of the time.

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