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.