I was chatting to Otter about writing advice, and my interpretations vs. what they’ve gleaned from reading too much of it online – and the one that got me waving my hands the most today was that old favourite, “Kill Your Darlings.”
Otter, from extensive research online, suggested that it sounded like “Take out every single piece of writing that you actually like.” Or possibly “If you’ve written a good bit, you’ve done it wrong.”
My first takeaway from that was “THERE’S SO MUCH FUCKING PRETENTIOUS WRITING ADVICE ONLINE, WHAT THE HELL.”
My second was “WHY WOULD YOU REMOVE ALL THE BITS YOU LIKE FROM YOUR BOOK?!!”
So, for me, “Kill Your Darlings” has three facets.
The Edit Tantrum
The first is when your editor sends edits back. Every single writer’s responses is going to be some form of “No! Won’t! It’s my book, I love it, you just don’t understand!” (And I say this as a writer, too. I’ve been there.)
Take a step back. Take some time out. Take a breath.
You might not agree with all of your editor’s points, but it’s worth considering them: think about why they’re being suggested, and what the effect would be. Even if you ultimately decide not to do that thing, your editor will very rarely* be suggesting wholesale slaughter for the fun of it.
So take some time, eat some “I’m Miserable” ice cream, and then kill your darlings.
The Scene Stealer
I really need to get my thoughts together for a longer post on this, but for me, every scene must do at least two things. Does it advance the plot AND tell us something about the characters? Does it give us some setting AND present a pivotal moment in character development? And, importantly, does it do something you haven’t done in another scene?
The same applies to language to some extent. You might have written the most beautiful conversation between two characters… but if you can tell us the same information in one sentence, then maybe you don’t need it. That line can be a brilliant gut-punch, but if it’s in the wrong place or offsets what you’re doing in the rest of the scene, it needs to come out.
This is the most frequent “Kill Your Darling” that I come across. It’s where you’ve written something good, fun, amazing, poignant – but it’s not needed. You’ve already told us that information; you could condense these three scenes into one; you could remove that sentence and it would make the rest of the conversation flow better.
It’s a lovely darling – but it doesn’t need to be in this book.
(By the way, I always took these bits out and saved them in another document – it’s one way of killing darlings without feeling too bad.)
The Deus Ex Darling
This one, I admit, mostly applies to newer writers, or the more tender-hearted of us. (How on earth do people like GRRM just kill everyone off? Do they have hearts of stone?!)
It’s where you can’t bear to go through with the plot or the action that you wanted. You’ve got to a certain point, to a climax, and- I just can’t do it. I want them to get together. I want them to survive.
Well, you’re the author – they can!
Except it breaks what you’re trying to achieve. It’s where plot armour comes from; where countless ordinary soldiers die, but the hero only gets a distinguished scar. Where no matter how many bad things happen, your hero still gets up again. It does also work the other way – where the hero gets more crap piled on than anyone else. Do they never get a break? Do they ever get some happiness? Frankly, a litany of Terrible Woe is as hard to read as someone Overcoming Every Obstacle Without A Thought.
Very often this is fixed by some judicious tweaking of cause, effect and the amount of shit you’re piling on characters, but it’s also a mindset. You are allowed to get personally invested in your characters – that’s the point! – but you also have to be mindful of the wider plot, of your reader, and of the need for emotional tension. You need to balance character with plot, and sometimes that does involve being mean – or not.
Don’t Kill The Good Stuff
So please don’t take “kill your darlings” to mean that you have to take everything you like out of a book – if you don’t like your book, then how on earth is the reader going to like it?
I think what “kill your darlings” is meant to do is make you look at the bits that you’re attached to, and give them a critical once-over. It’s making you think about why that piece is in there, and if you’re just leaving it in because you like it. It’s looking at the needs of the plot and the characters and the book as a whole, not at your writer’s ego.
And sometimes it’s wrong: you can leave that bit in. You can keep a sentence just because you love it. You can keep a scene because hot damn, it’s awesome.
But think about why you’re doing it.
And don’t be afraid to put the knife in when you need to.
*I mean. I’m not ruling anything out here.