Writing Writ #3: Kill Your Darlings
“Kill your darlings” is a time old piece of writing advice, that’s been attributed to Stephen King, William Falkner and Oscar Wilde. It’s also one that I think gets up the nose of most writers, after all, none of us like to be told to get rid of that bit of writing that we absolutely love.
However, the point of “kill your darlings” is not to tear out every sparkly new metaphor and destroy all your precious similes. It’s about reminding you to find a place of objectivity, so that you can become a writer that other people will want to read.
First things first, I want you to take off your ego and leave it at the door. Whether you’re a sufferer of crippling self-doubt, or one of those rare writers who’s cursed with arrogance, your ego has no place in the editing room. It’ll only serve to trip you up and send you sprawling. So, when you’re reading your own writing put yourself to one side and step into the shoes of a reader. I’ve extended this clothing analogy too far, haven’t I?
Now you need to be brutal with your work. If something doesn’t sound right to you, it won’t sound right to a reader, so question it! You’ve said her eyes were the blue of a stormy ocean, but do you also need to say her lips are the plush pink of an orchid and her hair hung like gilded satin around her shoulders all in the same paragraph? Or maybe you’ve described how the kitchen counters are dense black marble, but your floors are shimmering laminate and your cupboards are beautifully antiqued oak? Here’s the thing, these are all reasonable images and descriptions to conjure up. But stick them all in one breath and you’re likely to give your reader a headache. Pick your favourite children, then suck it up and kill the rest.
Now, learn when to resurrect. What am I saying? Well, let’s pretend you’re now two chapters down the line and you’re staring at the same woman. Previously your hero was looking into her eyes while she was angry, so the stormy ocean imagery made sense, but it didn’t make sense to talk about her plush pout and glistening golden locks. However, now your hero has realised he has feelings for this woman, and they’re having a blink off over a cup of coffee. You can now sneak one of those murdered babies back in to your text. And if your description is looking particularly sparse, you can resurrect both.
However, learn when to bury it deep. While there will be occasions when an image is so good, it’s worth sticking back in somewhere else…there will also be darlings that just need to stay dead. For instance, the Writeryjig Clubamabob crew recently called me out for using an image in dialogue that seemed far too rehearsed. Arguably, Olivia (The End of Atlas) is the type to rehearse conversations over and over, so the line almost made sense, but given the scene it was over the top. As it was, I ended up editing the whole scene because Olivia was a huge drama queen at a point in the story where it was completely inappropriate, and my image died with the dialogue. And dead it will stay because it was too contrived. (FYI, I would tell you what the line was, but it’s a major spoiler.)
Finally, start applying “kill your darlings” to the bigger picture. This advice isn’t just about imagery, or even shoddily disguised polemics. It can also be used to look at the broader picture of your novel to pick out what’s not working. In my time, I have personally written characters with voices ten years too old for them, loveable assholes that have just been straight up assholes, and have essentially embedded the opening to a fanfiction of my own characters into more than one novel. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how much you love a character or scene (or indeed how much you chuckled when you wrote it), it’s just got to go!
Anyway, I hope this helps those of you who really struggle with the idea of “kill your darlings”. Cutting out things we love can be incredibly difficult, but if it’s going to irritate the reader or just seem plain silly in the greater scheme of things then better to kill a phrase than wipe out a novel.
Now, I’m off to get back to hacking my other love apart (my dissertation). Let me know down in the below if you have any tips for killing your darlings, or what your thoughts are on this tip.
Catch y’all next week!