Kill your darlings

July 4, 2016

I have always thought, ‘kill your darlings’ was terrible writing advice. I, therefore, mostly just disregarded it. No, let’s be honest. I kind of spitefully worked to prove that they were worth keeping.

I wasn’t always correct, which is where a good editor is important. But I still don’t think you should kill your darlings – you make them work.

The real question is, what really matters to you? Because some lines, some snippets of dialog, or even a whole scene just won’t work in your novel. If you didn’t love them, they wouldn’t be darlings. Those are the easy edits.

You’re editor gives you a note that something’s just not working, do it better. And a nice quick delete of a line or a pesky word is easier than wrestling with how to make it better. Check, Done, Moving on.

But what happens when you get that note and you really do love the bit of description, even if it’s in the wrong tense. If a line isn’t working in a scene you need to decide, which do you love more? If you really love the line, then rewrite the scene to make it work.

Move the scene somewhere else in the novel so the new emotional beat works.
Rewrite the whole emotional arc of the character to make that new scene work.

I have done all of the above at different times and each time it’s made my novels better.

Because that’s the thing about darlings, you love them for a reason. They are the things in your story that make you smile – that you look forward to getting to – that make the whole process interesting and fun.

Why in the world would you remove that from your work?

It isn’t just about you, either. If it’s your darling, there’s a good chance your readers will love it too. Susan Dennard calls that the magic cookie in the scene. I think she also once referred to it as the spice and glitter which is the phrase I use. How do I make the scene exciting – make your heart beat a little faster with a good line or a good swoon or a jolt of excitement. Even with just a really good word in the right moment. If they make the scene not work – change the scene.

But… know your darlings. Maybe you like the line but you love the scene more. The line isn’t your darling, the scene is. Make it the best scene it can be, with or without the line or with a different version of the line.

The way I keep track of what may or may not be a darling is with my ‘pieces’ document. After the first pass from my editors (which is about the third layer, usually) I paste every scene that I cut into the ‘pieces’ document instead of deleting it outright. Lines I really like get moved over there; paragraphs I think are good. As I continue editing, phrases or sections sometimes make their way back in if I find a new place where they fit. Sometimes they’re just the inspiration I need to reference if I liked what I did but need to do it differently.

In Enchanted Storms, I wrote this scene in a tavern one evening at least three times. The first time I realized I could write it better. Then it didn’t work after I realized I’d written Evanelle wrong. I still loved the scene and it served the plot well but it didn’t make any sense with Evanelle’s arc. I ended up with two different versions of this scene in my pieces document. When I went to write it the third time it was a cobbled version of new writing, phrases I loved (often in different places in the scene) and snippets of dialog (again, rearranged to fit the new character arc).

By the end, when I read through the ‘pieces’ document I don’t lament not including any of it.

And if I do lament it’s absence, I work harder to find a place for it that works. I want each novel to include every thing I loved, all the important moments and lines and words, so I don’t regret anything left unsaid.

The reality is, things are going to get cut. And they’re going to change. Know your darlings. And protect them. Make them work. Use the Gore Verbinski method if you have to.

And, if you’re lucky, a whole scene won’t work and ends up cut. That’s what we call ‘Bonus Content’ my friend.

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