A True-To-Life Tale Of Bonafide Darling-Killing

Comes a time in every writer’s life that he’s gotta look at the work in front of him and he’s got to say, “This thing is thick with peacocks. Pretty, pretty peacocks.”

Then he’s gottta take a meat cleaver and start cutting up those pretty, pretty peacocks*.

Because those peacocks, pretty as they are, stand out. They’ve got them ostentatious tails. Those little tickly tiaras of alien antenna-feathers. They’re a color blue you don’t see anywhere except blue raspberry popsicles. They preen. They preen all the goddamn time. And they strut around like they own the place. They warble like motherfuckers. And, if we’re being honest, they shit up everything. They’re just shitting machines, those peacocks.

Of course, all this is me being metaphorical.

What I’m saying is, you write a story, you’re eventually going to come across some darlings.

Darlings are those elements of your story that fulfill two qualifications: first, you love them dearly, and second, your love isn’t enough to justify their existence. Some people misconstrue the darling. They say, “If you love it, kill it,” which is fucked up advice from any angle (“I LOVE YOU, HONEY, BUT SOME WRITER ONLINE SAID I HAVE TO MURDER YOU NOW”). Don’t destroy the parts of your work you love just because you love them.

No, we must destroy those things that we love that also unfortunately don’t belong.

Like, say, an ugly hat everyone tells you will get you beat up.

And you’re like, “But it’s fantastic. It has a propeller. And it houses squirrels.”

And everyone’s like, “But squirrels are pests.”

But you don’t listen and you walk outside the house and then a bunch of squirrel-hating squirrelophobes come out of the shrubs and beat you half to death with mailbox posts. And then your friends are like “We told you so. We told you about that hat.”

Point is, your love is not enough to save these darlings.

They are too precious to live.

Now, I like to dispense great heaps and mounds of dubious writing advice here in the vaunted halls of Terribleminds University, and the majority of that advice comes from my own (mis)adventures with the written word, and this one is no different. And so I present to you:


So, as you may have heard (since I was pretty noisy about it, sorry):

THE BLUE BLAZES is now out.

This book took a lot of work to bring out of my head. I swung for the fences on this one. It was at the time the longest thing I’d ever written, topping out at 100,000 words. It’s got an immeasurable fuck-sack of world-building in there — I tried not to borrow too much from previous sources and instead conjured my own version of what Hell would look like under the streets and tunnels of New York City (and, in some ways, above it, too). Between the gangs, the crime families, the Sandhog union, the goblins, the snakefaces, the daemon families —

Well, there’s a lot of stuff I threw at the wall.

And by golly, I loved it all.

I mean, sometimes I hated it, as is a writer’s wont. You careen drunkenly between obsessive love and infernal hate for your work on a daily — shit, even hourly — basis. But for the most part what I was throwing out was stuff I liked and was ready to defend by its end.

Case in point, the first:

The open and close of the book.

The first and last chapters of the book you (er, hopefully) have in your hands is not the first and last chapters as I wrote them initially. When I wrote them I wanted to introduce Mookie as a kind of monster figure, a human minotaur at the heart of his own labyrinth, right? An unexpected protagonist. So, I had this drunk guy (an outsider, really) who’d been kicked out of his house by his wife stumble into Mookie’s not-actually-open bar looking for a drink. And Mookie basically scares the shit out of him and kicks his ass a little and is about to throw him out — but there’s this moment where the two sad-sacks recognize each other’s sad-sackedness and while they don’t exactly commiserate, Mookie and he share a drink.

Then he kicks him out and the scene with Mookie’s daughter ensues.

Cut to the end where Mookie comes back to the bar and he’s alone — but he turns on the OPEN sign and who wanders in at midnight but that same guy, and we see how he ended up, and then there’s the hint of some commiseration. Two sad bastards. Drinking.

I liked it. It did things I dug. It bookended the piece.

And it didn’t work.

It took up too much time. It delayed the story. It was perpendicular to the point of the tale — while it leaned on some of the themes, thematic embrace is by no means enough for me. It has to do more to survive. Every inch of the work has to be willing to work double-duty lest it get:


It was easy enough to get rid of. He was a peripheral character. He had two chapters.

His death was clean and elegant. Extracting the body: effortless.

And then came Cassie Morgan.

Cassie was a full-fledged supporting character — a top-tier one, at that. She was daughter to Sandhog Davey Morgan, this young girl trying to prove herself among the Sandhogs but in doing so accidentally falls in with Mookie and his grim mission.  I had her in there as a surrogate daughter to Mookie — a foil to Nora, the real daughter, the daughter trying to hurt him.

She ended up in like, the whole goddamn book. She was everywhere. Instrumental in parts. Wound through the plot, braided in with other characters. And yet…

She had very little agency. She felt swept along.

Her journey felt incomplete.

And I was like, “Okay, that’s fine, I’ll just… fix it.” And as I tried to fix it — untangling the snarled threads, really — I just ended up knotting things up worse. Until at the end I was like a cat who had strangled itself half-to-death with its own ball of yarn. It was ugly business.

I realized that as a character, she felt redundant. I already had a daughter figure: Mookie’s actual daughter, Nora. Nora needed more page-time. Nora needed a complete arc that didn’t duplicate beats found in Cassie’s tale. Cassie felt peripheral. A hanger-on; a poser in the tale.

BUT I LIKED CASSIE. She was fun! Plucky! Tough! And… and…

And finally I said to my agent, “I think I need to let Cassie go.”

And she had the class not to say, “I knew this all along but you needed to figure this out on your own because otherwise you just would’ve made frowny-faces.”

She instead agreed politely.

And thus began the unsnarling, the untangling. I had to cut free the knots that formed from the enmeshing of Cassie into the plot. This is harder than you think. It’s not so simple as just summoning her name through the Find Text spell and quietly excising her from the tapestry — she had cause and effect. She was wedded to events, objects, timelines. Every snip saw another piece threaten to unravel — and I had to retie all the threads that connected to her originally.

It was messy.

I hated it.

I did it anyway.

And the book felt tighter. More meaningful. It put more emphasis on Nora. It gave the story more room, more pep, didn’t feel like it was tripping on its own characters.

It was an essential darling to murder.

A critical peacock to behead and put on display for all the other pretty, pretty peacocks.

So, my advice to you is the same that I have to take — this is the medicine, folks:

Kill your darlings. Two to the chest. One to the head. Shed your tears but never look back.

* —> P.S. we used to have a peacock growing up and it was murdered by a raccoon which is very sad so I don’t actually condone ACTUAL PEACOCK MURDER.

44 responses to “A True-To-Life Tale Of Bonafide Darling-Killing”

  1. Thanks for sharing that. It is a consolation to know that even a guy who can write like you do can need to do serious surgery on a story. And that IT’S NOT EASY! I feel better about what I’m looking at with a couple of my manuscripts. Needing that new first chapter is EASY next to untwining a character from the whole book!

  2. I have a dump file. Outside of my manuscript it is the most important file I have. Every darling I’ve had to kill is in my dump file. And not just the darlings, but the scenes I loved but didn’t fit, the sublime phrases, the witticisms, the.. you get the idea. They’re all there– out of my book and in my dump file. Waiting for another chance.

    • Yes! I have a “Chapter 99” file. I don’t kill my darlings; they go live on a farm in the country… Oh man, we should all self-pub our darlings files!

    • I dump so much in the process that sometimes I have two dump files, one for early and one for later. I also keep a complete clean copy of the previous version, in case I mess up the edit so badly that I need to go back and start again (it has happened). Also, in a recent rewrite that followed an earlier, turned-out-incomplete-edit, I actually went back and reinstated some of the previous version, because it worked better in the rewritten (and much better) story. So if the darlings are good, just not in the right place or the right story, sometimes it’s worth keeping them. But mostly it just makes you feel better about cutting them out… 😉

  3. I like it, Ruth. Should make it easier–I’m not killing it, just putting it aside for later.

    I do much the same thing when sorting photos–a discard file for the ones I’m struggling to delete, even though they are flawed or redundant or both.

  4. I just released the first beta copy to my beta readers. It’s the sequel to A Latent Dark. I thought I was being clever by opening with a chapter that overlapped the first book.


    They hated it.

    Every. Single. One. Of. Them.

    So it’s going to have to go I think. I may pull it out and post it as a side story, but as for the book, it just ain’t going to happen.

    I’m sorry about your peacock.

  5. Many words of wisdom here Chuck, but just wanted to say you cheered me up so much on this dull and very wet morning, in fact every morning I take in your top class advice and have lots of chuckles while doing so. Thank you for a bright start to my every dayy.

  6. Nothing is quite so painful to cut as a good secondary character who doesn’t belong in the story (if one of your main characters doesn’t belong you’re probably writing the wrong story). When you turn around and realize that the little framing scene you intended for them has ballooned to 6,000 words you can feel for a fleeting moment the futility of human existence.

  7. I’m glad to know that this sort of thing sucks for everybody.

    I always try to avoid this, usually by planning a little too thoroughly, making sure every character fits in just right.

    A lost cause, of course. I’m learning that planning helps, but multiple darling homicide still needs to happen eventually. Oh well, back to the murder!

  8. There is nothing worse than realizing that a character you’ve come to adore is nothing but a hollow shell. It makes me feel like an incompetent god, messing around with the potter’s wheel and forgetting to add something in to make it all come to life. When I first outlined the book I’m writing now, it had a huge cast. But successive drafts have seen me turn from noobish god into serial killer. It’s nice to know I’m in good company.

    Excuse me, I need to go put away the shovel and wash the blood off.

  9. You know what, though? This “kill your darlings” thing is starting to morph into some kind of idea that if the writer REALLY REALLY LIKES SOMETHING he or she is OBLIGED to kill it. The original form of this idea — that the writers has to recognize when something isn’t working in a story and remove it, even if he or she really likes it — is valuable. But far too often I see this exchange:

    “You need to take this out of the story.”

    “I like it in the story because I think it–”


    Well fuck that. The writer is the only one who gets to make that call. Ever. Amen.

    • Unless you loathe every word, you’re doing it wrong! I agree, Christopher, sometimes the idea can get a little out of control, especially if it’s coming second-hand from someone who might have different ideas about what the story should be.

  10. Oh lord, the peacocks. Funny you should mention them…. I just sat down last night to look at the old ms, with the funny feeling that “Gee, do some bits of this feel too long and drag on a little?” only to discover, it’s not that they drag on a little, it’s that I have STUFFED THOUSANDS OF PEACOCKS OF EXPOSITION into my book, so tightly packed that they form little PEACOCK BOMBS that explode onto readers’ heads in clouds of feathers and poop and ask, “DO YOU GET IT YET?? HUH? HUHUHUHUH?? DO YA?”

    Sigh. Time to excise the peacock bombs. It’s a delicate maneuver: One wrong cut and I’m spending the rest of the day scraping crap off of my computer screen.

    Thanks for the encouragement, though. It’s actually very comforting to know we all do this.

  11. Yeah, I’ve been slaughtering darlings – but I don’t bury them – I put them in a folder of deleted passages – who knows, they may be revived for some other book.

  12. *envisions everyone’s Darlings file as a cross between limbo and the Twilight Zone, sobs coming from the corner “I don’t know what I did wrong?” “Nothing, sweetheart. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”*

  13. I hate you. Mostly because I had to do this with the novel I just finished a month ago. I had at least two scenes I had to delete and it killed me because I liked them so much. The first one had to do with this cool idea I had about animal spirits, but there was no relevancy to the larger plotline so it had to die. The second was this really great interaction between the protagonist and the villain, but my writing sensei told me the reader didn’t really need to see the protagonist learning how to shoot since it didn’t matter to the larger storyline and I had to let that go as well. Working on the final book in the trilogy and I can already tell I’ve got more darlings to murder. So much ink-blood on my hands. *quietly sobs as she digs a grave*

    Great post, though, as always.

  14. People don’t realize it, but raccoons can be monstrously evil bastards. Back in rural Illinois where I grew up, it was common knowledge that the bigger ones ate kittens.

    As for this post’s secondary message, I can’t wait to finish my first draft, but I absolutely dread that second pass. My writing space is gonna look like an abattoir. And I will look like a guy curled up in the corner, sobbing.

  15. It is unfortunate — and annoying — that you usually can’t see the darlings until you’ve written the whole thing. And then, after you’ve finished — there they are, clear as day. I always wonder why I couldn’t see them before.

  16. Here’s one you may have had to deal with, I’m curious how you would/did.

    I’m working up a series (yeah, I know) that features 5 characters. In any given book, one is the primary protagonist, and the others are important but not AS important as the protag. Ideally they’ll all have mini-arcs, but, y’know, shit happens and sometime they don’t.

    First attempt is to give them thematically resonant arcs, but let’s say that fails.

    The characters are bound to the city (hey, I didn’t make up the rules…oh, wait…), so I can’t believably just disappear them to gramma’s house for the duration of the story. Is it acceptable to–

    oh, fuck, yes, I suppose I *can* disappear them to gramma’s house, in one form or another. Answered my own question. Thanks, Chuck. You’re good at this.

  17. That part about the beating-with-mailbox-posts makes me think that you’ve been to my neighborhood before.

  18. Goddammit. I’ve spent the last three months wrestling with the fact that the entire chapters of my project are useless and have to be done away with, which unfortunately means that the parts that remain just don’t fucking work. I’d given up on reconciling the issue, and put it with the rest of my abandoned inkbabies in the back of the closet.

    I’m trying again, you bastard. I hope you’re satisfied.

  19. Hi Chuck..

    This is one of the things I rally love about some authors… I love seeing the process, especially after I have read the novel, knowing these things makes me appreciate the art of storytelling more….

    Thanks for sharing that … perhaps it may help my poor bloated stories a bit…

  20. I’ve had my own problem lately. I have this character, her subplot, all these things connected to her so thoroughly… but I don’t really like her being there. I’m not sure if I need to kill her darling style, but something about her doesn’t feel right. I can’t quantify it though. Without her large bits of everything falls apart. Thematically she makes sense, plot wise she makes sense, she doesn’t demand too much focus and keeps things moving, but I keep wishing I could figure out a way to tell the story without her.

    But this might be me thinking I suck again too. But right now I don’t know if I need to beef her up or rip her apart or leave her alone.

  21. The closest I’ve come to your Cassie example was Martin. He got a sex change between drafts and became (by coincidence) Cassie. This allowed me to build a bigger relationship between the character and a minor character (taking her under her wing as another woman in a male-dominated job) that was useful for the story. But it meant that I’d be reading through later drafts and keep coming across scenes where I’d pasted text and Cassie was referred to as “he.”

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