Learning to Kill my Darlings

When I first started out writing I saw a writing tip from Stephen King that said, ‘Kill Your Darlings.’ It must have been on one of those lists, you know the ones I mean; 20 Most Important Tips for Writers. That sort of thing.

At the time I figured the advice was specific to the horror genre – which characters should you dismember? Seriously!

Later I found the real explanation. It said – I’m paraphrasing here – that a writer should edit out the products of their genius writing moments. You know those times when you are so bowled over by your own inventiveness that you just ‘have to’ find a place for that clever literary device you concocted in your story. Your English teacher must have made you practice these things endlessly for a reason. Am I right?

Frankly, I could not understand Mr King’s advice. Amputate my clever bits. Surely not?! So, I concluded that all those writers spreading this piece of inexplicable advice were brain-washed members of Mr King’s cult.

Then I wrote a book. And as I did, I came to understand what Mr King was getting at. Here’s how I think of it. The words we write are a window through which a reader sees our story. A (decent) writer would never allow a reader to look through a dirty window so they will obsessively scrub it clean. Out go the typos, the inconsistencies and the grammar errors because we know that these will distract our reader from the view.

But we forget that it is just as difficult to see a view through a stained-glass window.

When a reader tries to look through stained-glass words – the daring vocabulary choices, the magnificent metaphors, stunning similes, brilliant double-meanings and so on – their view to what lies beyond is hampered. We have dazzled and distracted them with too much window dressing.

Of course we shouldn’t remove every literary device or stroke of genius from our writing. Which ones need to go? There are times when I struggle to fit a piece of cleverness into my story. It is like a jigsaw-puzzle piece that looks like it should fit, yet when I try pushing it into place, it resists. Like that puzzle piece, I can force the clever words into my story with some firm-handed manipulation. But deep down I know it isn’t right.

These are your darlings. And they have to go.

When I received my Storylines award, one of the judges commented that the ‘writing flows effortlessly.’ I can assure you that writing the book was not effortless so what I hope this means is that I did a good job of killing my darlings. They aren’t all gone, but I did perform some wide-scale wordocide. And believe me it isn’t easy to get rid of your darlings when they plead to stay and promise to fit in better, but the more you do it the easier it gets. Call it desensitisation.

So, Mr King if you are reading this (dreams are free), you were right and I was wrong, and I’m sorry for ever thinking you a brain-washing cult leader.

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11 thoughts on “Learning to Kill my Darlings

    • Thanks 🙂 I indulge myself with darlings in my blog & Facebook posts! And I can’t even claim credit for removing all my darlings from my book. Had some good proof readers! But recognising the need to do it is, I think, a good first step in the right direction.

  1. Not only is it hard to do, sometimes you don’t even realize the ones that need to be killed haha. Thank God for writer friends who help bring some objectivity to the process. But you’re right, a story needs to be stream-lined and focused, with every part of it intentionally there to move things forward.

    • Figuring out what to kill is definitely the hard part. I know sometimes I am reading something from a great author, and their wording is so clever I am pulled right out of the story to admire it. I guess that is what we want to avoid as writers – having the reader leave the story, even momentarily.

  2. It is hard. I work with a mantra. If you even vaguely think it is wrong, it is , remove it. Effectively, have the courage of your convictions. It’s better that you remove it, than have an editor or reader explain why you should.
    Looking forward to the book coming out, SJ.

    • Thanks Derin. I like your mantra. The amount of time I have wasted trying make something that was vaguely wrong right is huge. Better to remove it.

      • It is a hard lesson to learn, especially if you love the line/character/scene. However, if it’s wrong, It. Is. Wrong! Put them in something else if you have to, or perhaps (if you’ve killed them off as I often have), bring them up as a different character. Problem is, that often won’t work either. Ah, the art of the writer.

        Derin

    • Thanks Gwen. It does seem a little ironic to have a post about not getting too tricksey with your writing and then fill the post it full of just such darlings, but they need an outlet somewhere if I can’t put them in a book!

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