Writing Writ #3: Kill Your Darlings

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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.

Step 1:

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?

Step 2:

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.

Step 3:

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.

Step 4:

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.)

Step 5:

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!

Best,

EM.

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Poem: Seen from a Window in Wales

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Poem: Seen from a Window in Wales:

A guy washing his Land Rover, while his golden retriever enjoyed a good sunbathe on a warm tarmac drive.

A girl wearing a set of cat ears with her school uniform, trying to coax an actual cat from down the side of a house.

Two shirtless, white-haired men tinkering under the bonnet of an expensive car.

A kid jumping out of his dad’s car wearing a gi, before excitedly showing off his moves to an empty street.

A teeny-tiny grey poodle, happy to be alive and ready for outdoor adventure.

A friend I used to go to school with pushing her daughter home in a pram.

My own cat sneaking on his belly across the road and into someone else’s garden.

Sunshine teasing me mercilessly.

 

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Dissertation Drama: Week 1

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Dissertation Drama: Week 1

Last Friday (28th of April) I had an informal first meeting with my dissertation supervisor, launching me into the final leg of my master’s degree and Dissertation Drama: Week 1. For those of you who don’t know, my dissertation will be an analysis of the different kinds of creativity used in fanfiction, as well as the notions of authenticity involved (at least at the moment).

Not gonna lie, I left that first meeting feeling mildly nauseous. I’ve never written a piece of research longer than 4k before. The End of Atlas is currently over 80k, but I feel like creative pieces are somewhat different to extended academic research…maybe because I’ve been working on that since I was 7-years-old.

But I know I’m capable of writing a 15k dissertation. It is something I can do. Step by step. And I thought, perhaps, y’all would like to come on this magical journey with me.

Everything I’ve learnt about writing a dissertation in Week 1:

  1. All supervisors differ – Having spoken to one of my course mates, and friends who’ve also done a master’s at UoB, I’ve noticed that they seem to have pretty different descriptions of how their supervisor approaches(ed) helping a student deal with their dissertation. Some are strict, dictating what they expect by the next meeting, others are more flexible. I imagine, in part, it’s due to the kind of students they’ve dealt with in the past, or maybe they just have a different approach to teaching in general. The key thing to remember is, whoever you’ve got, you need to learn how to work with them. Be flexible and be motivated. Keep going.

 

  1. Having a diary/notebook is key – During lectures, you take notes. When you read, you take notes. When you’re working on your dissertation TAKE NOTES. And do it in a way that works for you. Back when I started throwing ideas around, I bought myself a standard notebook, and made the first two pages into and Index/Contents page, bullet journal style. I don’t keep a bullet journal, but I figured the Contents page element would be super useful, given that it’s almost guaranteed I’m going to need to flick back and look at my notes on something at some point.

 

  1. Literature reviews should be about 4k – Here’s the thing…I’ve never written a literature review before. A number of friends had to do one in the first year of their undergrad as part of the “Independent Study Module” they all had to take. Problem was, as a creative writer, I didn’t take that module. This year, however, a number of lecturers have brought up literature reviews when talking about essays, mainly to say, “Don’t waste 1000 words just talking about background literature. Sow the criticism of other works throughout your essay.” Then I started sketching my plan, based on a dissertation without a “Literature Review” section…but with a 4k Methodology section. It wasn’t until I dug back through my notes, and spoke to a few friends that I realised, yup, a literature review is about 4/5k of a dissertation. Glad I noticed that one.

 

  1. There is always more to talk about – Going into this, I thought I would only need to talk about models of authenticity and highlight the one’s I was going to need to use. By the end of my first week, I’m now up to three model areas I’m probably going to need to discuss: authenticity, creativity and narrative. I already know the models I’m likely to use, but the wonder of that sneaky 4k literature review, means that Imma have to find out what models I’m not using too 😉

 

And that’s about it for Dissertation Drama: Week 1. I’m hoping these entries will help me keep track of everything, but will also prove useful for others in my situation. If you’ve just started your dissertation, I’d be interested to know what you’ve learnt so far. And if you’re a veteran dissertation writer…hit me up with your hints. Come at me bro, plz 😉

Best,

EM.

Then vs Now: Revisiting Please Mind the Gap

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Then vs Now: Revisiting Old Work

So this last week I’ve been stressed out of mind by a car that only works when it wants to and an essay argument that even I’m not convinced by. With that in mind, I thought it would be good to look back at how far I’ve come. Back to the very first creative writing piece I submitted for my undergraduate course.

To those of you who took the course with me…that’s right. It’s the return of Please Mind the Gap.

The prompt we were given for our first piece of assessed work was “Generations”. Looking back, I realise that the intention was probably to let us have as much wiggle room as possible to write something we wanted to write, but all I could think about was the old people versus young people dynamic.

At the time, I was also fixated on the idea that I was going to write crime fiction of some form, so I had to find a way to lever in some deduction, some logic, some action. This resulted in a story about a young guy (Henry) stopping an old lady from throwing herself in front of a train…bridging the generation gap, I guess?

Now, unfortunately, I can’t find the feedback sheet for this (and believe me, after re-reading it, I tried), but I think I got 67 (a 2:1 in Britain) and I have no idea how it did so well. But anyhow, what follows is a list of my favourite lines and why they’re terrible. Forgive me for my sins.

Please Mind the Gap: A review by its baffled writer.

“He had his family of course, but family is a bubble of childhood recollections and the moment it comes into contact with the real world, it pops.”

This metaphor is rather famous amongst my writing friends as one of the worst things I’ve ever written. At the time, I refused to accept this. However, it should be noted that its original form was far worse, as it included the words “rainbow vapour”. I can only assume that I was trying to make Henry sound like a 3-year-old, high on sugar.

“The city had been a bit of a culture shock. More like a culture thunderstorm, if Henry was to be completely honest with himself. He wasn’t often. Henry liked to pretend that nothing was ever wrong in the world. It was his way. And he was set in his way. Or so he had thought.”

I’m going to give myself a little pat on the back for the culture shock, culture thunderstorm comparison. I think that’s not far off a nice bit of playful emphasis right there. But then past Emma had to go ahead and ruin it, didn’t she? What follows sounds like I’m in the middle of brainstorming who Henry actually is, only I accidentally did it in the middle of the narrative. It’s okay to have a character flipflop…but let’s not flipflop for 6 consecutive sentences.

“Her patent shoes glinted in the icy sunlight. The reflection slipped like a tear from the surface as she shifted her weight from foot to foot.”

WHY ARE HER SHOES CRYING? This is part of the description used to introduce my little old lady to the scene. Now obviously, what I was trying to say is, “this lady is sad”, but what I have actually done, with some ridiculous use of personification is say “her shoes are sad.” Why, Emma, just why?

“Everything was fine, he told himself. Everything was warm milk, and fresh blackberries and smooth, like the perfect surface of an eggshell.
“But eggshell’s are fragile,” his mother had once whispered softly in his ear, “So be careful you don’t drop it.””

Apparently, Henry’s mother is Yoda…or Obi Wan…and her seemingly irrelevant words of wisdom echo in Henry’s ears when he most needs to hear them. And let’s not go near why Henry, a university student from 2011, has a list of favourite things that sound like they were taken straight out of The Sound of Music.

No quote here. But just know that this story included a whole paragraph of heart-breaking baby chicken death…

…That I then turned into an extended metaphor. And I have no idea why. But I can only think that maybe my lecturer thought this was sophisticated and not just a horrifying use of flashback.

“Henry’s rucksack flew out to one-side and was dragged into the riptide of the speeding train. The bag of books ricocheted off a window and launched itself through the crowd, into the timetables at the back of the station.”

Where is physics? And, okay, I later suggest that Henry’s shoulders are both dislocated…but even then I’m still confused about how this bag gets ripped from his back? So I guess…where is biology, as well?

“‘That boy!’ They all thought, ‘That boy just pushed her right over! So rude! These artsy-fartsy students with their flat caps and sharp creased trousers. I hope he didn’t break her hip.’”

Apparently the people on this platform are part of some kind of hive mind. And I can’t decide whether to use single or double quotation marks, or how to format dialogue/thought. Also, the only way to describe Henry is to use the objects that I have already highlighted in the narrative. I’m sorry, Henry. You are your fashion choices.

“No-one noticed Henry’s disappearance.”

I call bull****, past Emma. A whole crowd of people just observed him shove a lady over and noticed enough detail to accurately describe his attire to the police. Somebody saw him fall down the side of the train!

“Henry had slipped down the gap. That gap between the train and the platform where all the debris of the rail is thrown. “

These people all think Henry is trash, and they should feel bad. Did I mention? DID I SAY IT LOUD ENOUGH WITH MY IMAGERY?

“The peak of his cap was turned upwards, allowing a few dark curls and a thin trail of red yolk to tease their way across his forehead.”

There’s the tail end of that chicken death metaphor, “red yolk”. ~Sigh~ Couldn’t have just called blood, blood, could you? Also, his bag got torn from his shoulders somehow…but that hat, that hat is fixed to his head with cement.

“The younger woman stared on open mouthed, dead of language.”

I bet you’re thinking there’s not much wrong with this sentence, except maybe for that flowery end. Well then, let me inform you that I’d never mentioned a young woman in this story before…so I have no idea why I’ve used the article “the”.

“People readied themselves to mourn an incidental.”

See, past Emma thinks she’s being real clever with that there use of “incidental”…but what I’ve actually done is make current me question whether or not I know the actual definition of incidental, and then try to figure out whether past Emma is trying to cram all the meanings onto it in a “look at me, I’m so poetic”. I’m dark and mysterious and broody. You can’t judge my ART!

In Conclusion

Uh, well, just so everyone knows, Henry survived this ordeal (again, WHERE IS BIOLOGY?). The final line is him getting a rude awakening as his shoulders pop back into their sockets, so I guess getting hit by a train and having apparent head trauma doesn’t mean much. It’s that bubble he lives in. When it pops the force from the train just dissipates into thin air. Possible? Right?

I hope you enjoyed this walk down memory lane with me. I know I’ve spent the past hour or so cackling at my own mistakes. It’s good to go back. It makes me feel so much better about the present. If you fancy reading something decent, check out Moth Rain if you haven’t already. See you next week!

P.S. In case you were wondering about the picture…we found a Tin Tin figurine in first year and put him on the lectern like this during a lecture. The lecturer said nothing. I collected Tin Tin after the session and he currently resides down the back of my bedside table.

Get the Idea: Then vs Now

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Get the Idea: Then vs Now

I’ve been thinking recently about how I came up with the concept for The End of Atlas vs how I used to come up with the ideas for previous novel projects.

Before Atlas my usual technique was to build a world around a character, which I think started

https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/pokemon/images/d/d6/Lawrence_III_7.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20121028024035
Lawrence III from Pokemon 2000

 when I was 8. Pokemon 2000 had just come out on VHS and I became obsessed with the villain (then nameless, now Lawrence III or Jirarudan). I built a whole world up around him and whenever I was bored or getting ready for bed, I would tell myself a little chunk of his story.

As I got older, I got really good at pulling character ideas out of nothing, from Lily the eccentric coffee shop owner, to Carson a devious criminal psychologist. I would build my story by saying, what if this happened? What would they do? Who would they go to? What are they like? And so the world would branch out around them.

But at some point during university, something else got added to the idea making mix.

Moving Day, EM Harding

Franco the Giraffe from Opportunity Cost

First year, I did the same thing I’d always done. The characters came first, then the plot. At the beginning of second year, I created a Douglas-Adams-esque version of the previously mentioned Carson (Clarence) and put a lot of research into how you would go about stealing a giraffe.

Then, as the year went on, I hit something of an emotion crisis, and found myself thinking:

“For the love of God, I wish people would just do what I want them too!”

Shortly followed by:

“That would be a terrible idea, Emma. Don’t wish that.”

That moment was when Olivia, the female protagonist of Atlas and the original narrator, came to life. Whereas my previous characters had come from “it would be cool if this person existed”, Olivia came out of a necessity to express and idea.

I started with a very short story about a girl rescuing a guy from a mugging using her

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My bed in 2013. Struggle was real.

mysterious ability to influence others. Through a thick, morose monologue, the girl revealed that the guy used to be her best friend, until she fell in love with him and he fell for someone else. Not wanting to be around him, she’d erased his memory and spent her life grumpily avoiding him.

As I said, I was having something of an emotion crisis, but let’s not read into it.

I loved the concept and I liked Olivia, but I struggled a great deal with her voice. It had a monotonous “I hate everything” ring to it and I knew I was never going to be able to sustain that kind of narration for a whole novel.

Still, I knew this was the idea I wanted to use for my dissertation. By the beginning of third year, I’d drafted the opening multiple times. Many drafts were from Olivia’s perspective, but one version was voiced by Alec (male protag and current narrator). Of

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Section from Alec’s perspective. Good luck reading my handwriting.

course, in that version he was a police officer investigating a vigilante…who was his wife…who he couldn’t remember despite the wedding ring he always wore. We’ll call that an alternate universe and move on.

The important thing about that Alec draft was that I realised Alec was so much easier to write. Without having the burden of ridiculous power to worry about, he can express a wider range of emotion, internally and externally. So I went back through my older (less absurd) drafts and rewrote a couple of scenes from his perspective. Bingo.

Over the years my ideas have gone from, “oh, man this would be cool” and a few questions to drive the plot, to very much emotion driven. The characters, plot and themes of  The End of Atlas all come from a frustration that hit me hard in 2013, and

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Trying to work out how old minor characters need to be.

writing this novel has been a continuous reminder that no matter how tough things get, there’s a way through.  We’ve had our ups and downs, me and Atlas, but my interest in experimenting with it’s core concepts has been enough to bring me back from the verge of quitting multiple times.

For those of you who want to write something longer and who struggle to keep yourself interested (as I do), I strongly recommend finding something that drives you emotionally; something that makes the impulse to pick up a pen (or tap on a keyboard) so strong that even when you’ve fallen out with your fictional characters, and you’re crocodile wrestling with how to make your plot work, you still feel some comfort in sitting down and getting what’s in your brain, out in words.

After all, is it really a good idea if you can’t bring yourself to follow through?

 

 

Featured Image taken by a friend in Amsterdam (2013).

 

 

Story Time: Moving Day

Moving Day, E.M. Harding
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Moving Day

Franco was a perfect male specimen. He was tall, but not too tall, had broad powerful shoulders, and sported a surprisingly elegant neck for a gent. Despite this, he didn’t make his sexual debut until the age of 8. His mother informed him that, back in the homeland, most men his age already had children. Franco just scoffed. It wasn’t his fault. The other chaps were always getting in the way, and he wasn’t very good at necking. Then Kanna arrived. She was sweet, and nice enough to slip behind the acacias, where no-one could see them. He wasn’t going to waste such an opportunity. The lady made his heart feel three-feet big.

“A creature of habit.” That’s what the help called him. But so what? So what if he enjoyed the little things in life; taking long walks, freshly prepared meals, and his newly scheduled romps before bath time? Franco was living the good life, and he knew it. Some of the others hated living behind fences, and being herded into their little wooden huts at night. His mother – who remembered the homeland well – strongly advocated the benefits of sleeping under the stars, but Franco liked the warmth of his hut and the soft floor. The bathroom facilities did leave something to be desired; he often had to spend a night with a room full of his own “offerings”, but they were always gone by the next evening. The help were very good that way. Honestly though, he could find no real reason to complain to the manager. He had warmth, he had food, and he had Kanna. What more could a man ask for?

Franco had 11 years of complete serenity, before the evening when everything changed. It began in the most bizarre of ways. A short, sharp pain in his bottom, that’s all. It wasn’t too bad. The pain dulled quite quickly, and for a while he felt fine. He continued to munch his supper. Gradually, however, everything started to get a bit blurry. Everything felt heavy too, even the air. Franco felt like his lungs were heaving in mud. It was rather disquieting, and he did in fact feel like he should be panicking. He just couldn’t. He wondered whether there was something wrong with the central heating, and went to call the manager. It was then he found that he had too many legs. There were too many legs, far too many. What kind of animal had four whole legs? Franco took a tumble and narrowly avoided bashing his skull against the wall. He tried to pick himself up off the floor, but found it was useless, and for some peculiar reason he didn’t really care. He let out a sigh of utter contentment and slipped into unconsciousness.

Waking up was not quite so fun. After all, he didn’t remember being blind before. And he was sure he used to be able to feel things. Didn’t he remember the pain of falling, of his knees buckling one after the other? For a moment he pondered whether or not he might be dead, then quickly came to his senses because you didn’t wake up dead, and he definitely remembered falling asleep. Besides, Kanna wanted to try behind the juicy looking sycamore next, and there was no way he was dying before he’d done that. He decided to try moving his legs about a bit. He heard something go bang, so it must have worked, but then why couldn’t he feel or see? Just breath, he told himself. Don’t panic!

He lay there for what felt like a month, but he couldn’t be sure. If he had been able to see a clock, he would have known it was only 30 minutes. The numbness began to wear off. A heavy weight eased away from his torso and Franco thrashed his legs around further. He could sense a presence in the room with him, several even, and it wasn’t very nice. Polite people announced themselves, introduced themselves. Even the help had names. No-one spoke to him now, and no-one tried to help him up.

There was something wrapped up in his legs too, some strange vine that burnt his skin when he wriggled. He tripped up onto his feet and his head nearly hit the floor with the effort. A vine around his neck choked him as it forced him up straight, and then all of the vines began to pull and tug and pinch, forcing him to move. There was yelling. Shouts of help speak, “This way!” “Watch yourself!” “Mind his head!” None of it was directed at him. They seemed to be shoving him into what he was sure should have been the wall of his home, but instead of slamming into wood, he stumbled up onto a cold echoing floor and something icy brushed against his side. He shuddered and his leg twitched out. Someone screeched. “Did he hit you?!” “No, I’m fine!” “Don’t scare me like that!” There was one final heave on the vines and Franco lurched forward. He jumped at the loud metallic bang that came from behind him.

It was all very odd, and very strange, but Franco still felt drowsy. He wanted to take another nap, but a sudden surge of motion put all thoughts of sleep out of his mind. He was standing still, but he could feel the wind rushing past his ears.

“Okay, what in the Savannah’s name is going on?” he coughed.

But no-one answered, because no-one spoke giraffe.

Moving Day, EM Harding