Monday, July 14, 2008

Dead Darlings?

“Kill Your Darlings.” That advice is as common as “Start With Action” or “Show Don’t Tell.” And, like the other two, it’s rarely defined at the time it's given.

When I first heard this piece of advice, I was aghast! Kill??? Seems kind of harsh. And permanent. Plus, I still didn’t have a clear idea of what I was supposed to be bludgeoning to death. So I set out to learn, and found some different definitions.

1) The turn of a phrase that is considered beautiful prose, but is really eye candy. It adds nothing to the story, and exists for the sole purpose of saying “ooo, pretty!”

Okay, I can see valid reasons for cutting phrases like this. I think they have no purpose other than plumping up a writer’s ego. I believe that truly good writing is invisible. I.E. the writing is so good that the reader doesn’t even notice that beautifully worded phrase or scene, because it adds to the story so much that he’s immersed in the story and characters.

2) Whole paragraphs, chunks, or chapters that don’t add to the story. They may take the main character somewhere irrelevant, or a conversation may happen that doesn’t move the story forward, etc.

I’m all for getting rid of these, too, because Less Is More. The less your characters prattle on, the more impact they have when they do speak. The less your scenes meander, the more sense their actions make when you reach the end. These things make happy readers who will want to find more of your books after they’ve finished with this one.

3) Find the pieces of the story that you are most attached to, and delete them.

Whoa! I don’t understand this one at all. What if my favorite piece is a heart-rending scene where the main character makes an incredibly difficult choice, without which there would be no story? Or what if my favorite piece is a subtle action that reflects the main character's subconscious, which adds depth and richness? I can’t just up and delete those. It would harm my story, not make it stronger. I suppose this advice is good for writers prone to eye-candy-phrases, but there’s already a rule of thumb for them. So where did this one come from, and who thought it would be useful? If someone else sees the usefulness, please explain because I sure don’t get it.

I think a better suggestion would be to learn to look at your work objectively, then remove what doesn’t add to the story. I’ve talked about objectivity before, and I just can’t stress enough how important it is. If you can’t get an objective view of your work, then how can you work on improving it? How do you know that your changes are making it better? Or worse? You don’t. You’re working blind, which is a dangerous thing. Incidentally, if you know you’re incapable of looking at your work objectively, there are other ways. Find a few trusted critique partners who will always tell you the truth, and who you know you can listen to. Eventually, you’ll be able to hear their voices in your head as you’re reading over your work, and then you’re on your way to getting your own objective view.

But I digress. We were talking about killing darlings.

After everything I’d learned, I still had a major issue with the word “kill.” That’s just too permanent for my taste. What if that little darling could be modified, then used in a different project? If I kill it, then I can’t reuse it. So I created my own little “clipboard” file. Anything I remove from my stories goes here, no matter what it is, and it stays there for all eternity.

I’ll go back and reread them (and sometimes I'm ashamed that those words came from me), but I always get something out of it. It might me a reminder that I’m learning more and making progress. It might be an “a-ha!” moment where I discovered I was heading in the right direction, but was executing the idea all wrong. I still have all these files for every story I’ve ever written, and I can’t bring myself to get rid of them. Call me nostalgic, but knowing that they’re still there makes the story richer and deeper in my head. If only because I know how hard I worked to make them the best I could.

What do you all do? Do you kill your Darlings, keep them in a file, or keep them in your story?

18 comments:

Danette Haworth said...

I like your tag on Verla's: Instead of killing your darlings, put them in a coma!

I also keep a file for my darling, excised portions; they might be useful later.

Tabitha said...

Thanks. :) A "coma" sounds much less permanent than "kill," doesn't it? At least then, you can wake them up if you need to. :)

Good to hear from a fellow saver. :)

Kerryn Angell said...

More great information and advice. I think I've linked to every post you've done since I found your blog!

It has to be about the story and not about you as a writer. I think in the best cases a great piece of writing is even better because of the context of the story. It's those darlings that you can treasure forever.

PJ Hoover said...

I agree kill is a bit harsh of a word. The key, like you said, is to look objectively. And time helps with that. after I finish revising next time, I'm stuffing it in a virtual drawer for some number of months before peeking again.

Tabitha said...

I'm glad you're enjoying my blog so far! Hope I can keep it up. :)

"It has to be about the story and not about you as a writer."
SO true. Just like the writing, the author must melt into the background and let the story take over. After all, people aren't reading the book to get to know the author. They just want a good story. :)

I think dedicated writers get this, but fame-seeking-wanna-be's have a harder time making the distiction. Shame, really.

Tabitha said...

PJ - so true that time is wonderful for creating a good story! Writing is definitely not for the impatient. Without that, how can we be sure we've created the best possible story we can?

Mary Witzl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary Witzl said...

I am a word packrat. So when I want to take out what I've come to see is 'filler', what I do is tell myself that I know that it happened, but the reader doesn't have to. This comforts me somehow; it's as though the piece of writing is still there, but visible only to yourself, the writer, so it won't bore or irritate the reader.

I've finally finished (for the 8th time) a novel I've written for adults, and I've taken out whole passages -- pages, in some cases. It was pure agony, but when I go back to reread, it is almost always better.

And I agree with you about killing the scenes you love the most. That's overkill and I can't see the point. I keep all my old versions of stories in one big file, but I seldom go back to read them. Some day, when I've forgotten all about them, I can quietly delete...

beth said...

I slaughter mercilessly. I save over my files and just kill them all off :)

Tabitha said...

Mary - Hello, fellow packrat! That was my mom's nickname for me growing up. :) But I just don't see the need for permanently getting rid of something, because you just never know if you might need it! :)

Beth - I'm glad there's someone out there who can get rid of something useless with no remorse! Sometimes I wish I could do that...but I have to have things done in stages. *sigh*

Mary Witzl said...

Tabitha -- I have a whole trunkload of my kids' baby clothes. I have a worn-out quilt my great grandmother made in Kentucky about a hundred years ago, and whole boxloads of my kids' school- and art-work from Japan. And believe me, that is just for starters!

But I'm thrilled to meet a fellow packrat. And by the way, that was what my mother called ME, too.

Tabitha said...

LOL!! I've also got boxes containing the stuff you've mentioned...not that it should surprise you. I guess once a packrat, always a packrat. :)

liquidambar said...

I stick them in a file I call "the attic." As in a real attic, sometimes things stay there indefinitely. Once in a while, I bring something down from the attic.
And you're right--you don't kill something just because you like it; you kill it in spite of how much you like it because it doesn't belong.

Tabitha said...

Ooo, what a great name! Makes a great visual. :)

Susan Sandmore said...

I can't kill them. I have a file for each book that I call "Outtakes" and I keep the chunks in there. I don't often look at them again, but I've gone back in and used something elsewhere, on occasion.

If writing's really working for me, I see no sense in deleting it. I try to be more merciless on the passages that are amusing but unnecessary.

Tabitha said...

Another good name! This one fits me well, since outtakes are usually embarassing moments...and I'm mostly embarrassed about what ends up in my extra files. :)

WordWrangler said...

Pam Zollman (fab writer and former Highlights editor) led a workshop for us a few months ago. Her advice?

HURT THE BUNNIES (i.e. your sweet little characters that have nothing wrong with them and all is right in their world, etc...)

It's harsh - but I think it's worth doing. You don't have to kill 'em - maybe just maim 'em a little. (okay, so that didn't sound good - but you know what I mean!)

Hugs,
Donna

Tabitha said...

Hi Donna! Good to see you again. :)

Pam is so right. Sounds like it was an awesome workshop! Will you be blogging about it so we can all reap her wisdom? Pleeeeease? :)