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:
A TRUE TALE OF DARLING-KILLING
So, as you may have heard (since I was pretty noisy about it, sorry):
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:
A HOWITZER TO THE FACE.
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.