Killing Your Darlings – Writing Excuses

What are your darlings?

The Writing Excuses podcast suggests that ‘your darlings’ are parts of your writing that you have a particular fondness of to the point that you begin to wrap your plot around them, even if it becomes detrimental to said plot.

The most obvious type of darling will be a particular character that, for whatever reason, resonates with you more than the others. Very often it isn’t the villain nor the hero either but a cast member that we find difficult to keep in the background.

Further examples discussed were particular first lines that had the power to drive an entire story before it was accepted that the line didn’t quite fit the plot after all. From a visual point of view, an image can also be fundamental to the creative process, it can be the catalyst for an idea that underpins a particular novel (after all, we do say a picture paints a thousand words!).

Many of these are common areas and I can see why, especially if we’re utilising our notebooks to scribble down particular phrases or images that set off a spark deep within our imagination.

This isn’t a bad thing for our writing when it is done well, but when they begin to take over it can be a problem.

How do you recognise your darlings?

Quite often it isn’t the writer himself that will recognise them. Chances are, you’re too close to your writing to see the effect that your darling is having on the rest of the novel. The discussion on the podcast all had a similar point in common; that is, nearly all darlings were pointed out by external influences. Advice or criticism from writing groups, editors, agents and friends were all examples where darlings were pointed out, often to the surprise of the writer.

If you, or your writing, doesn’t have the benefit of such an audience, then a good tip is that if you’re finding yourself writing the same conversation, the same scene, the same chapter over and over again without resolution then you’re probably trying too hard sub-consciously to keep a darling alive.

When should you kill them?

Many of us already know the benefits of writing the first draft with the internal editor locked tightly away. Whilst this does enable the first draft to be written relatively free of changes, it does mean that our retrospective view of things isn’t used until the re-writing process. It is here that we get to look over what we’ve written and are able to decide what works, and what doesn’t. Doing it in this part of the process enables you to have a lot more of the novel available to compare your darling against.

A wonderful quote about when you should become detached enough from your writing to kill your darlings is, “… start getting paid for it. Money brings a whole new level of detachment.”

Why should you kill them?

Similarly to recognising them, your darlings often hide from the writer and, the deeper they hide, the more damage they can do to your writing. Without knowing it, that joke you thought was funny and just had to be included may not be funny to anyone else. You could keep a scene in the novel because you think it is wonderful when, in truth, it could be an immersion-breaker for all other readers.

It will be tough to do it and you may not want to do it but, if there is the slightest chance that it makes your novel better, surely it’s worth at least trying?

The podcast discusses how some authors will purpose pad their writing out with more words / characters / scenes than is really necessary just so they can go through the cutting process without really hitting the areas that matter. This isn’t condoned in the podcast but does make you realise just how far some people will go to avoid killing their darlings.

There was some good news on the podcast though; Brandon suggests that the more books you end up writing, the easier this process becomes as you become less detached with your books as the numbers increase. I don’t think this is a professional thing, you just naturally end up spending less time on each book, and therefore don’t build up the same relationships.

Where do your darlings go when they die?

Well, that depends on you. From my own experience, one of the biggest darlings I killed off was an entire chapter around a particular event. I wrote that event as the first chapter of a novel and kept it there for months before I finally realised there was very little action in it and it contained quite a bit of exposition.

I knew something was wrong when I kept starting my re-writing process from chapter 2. In the end I didn’t quite kill it off, rather I chopped it up into pieces; some of it became a prologue, some of it was introduced throughout the novel and the rest was fed to the DELETE key.

Alternatively (and this is mentioned in the podcast) I keep an ‘ideas’ folder in Scrivener that almost all darlings are sent to. It’s a kind of literary limbo. Every now and then I scan through them all to see if anything can be used in my current writing project. If I find something, I use the godly power of the writer to resurrect it and the whole process can start again.

In the podcast, Brandon Sanderson is able to retain his deleted scenes / characters on his website and allow them to live on without them affecting the novel that they initially inhabited.

Interesting advice

It was suggested that this topic can be a significant issue for new writers, especially those who have spent a long time working on their first project. I can certainly understand what is being suggested; my own first novel is almost ten years in the making and I personally feel I just HAVE to get it out of the way before I can settle down and move on to newer things.

If you are in a similar position to me, then the advice can be quite shocking.

The advice is that you are probably already too detached to elements of this particular novel and, if you continue, you will find it very difficult to kill your darlings successfully.

The old saying of having to write a million words before you become a good writer is discussed to the point that it shouldn’t all be from the same book i.e. don’t keep trying to hammer out something when you may be better off just starting something different.

Personally, whilst I know I’ve invested quite some time into my own particular project, I don’t think I’m able to give up on it just yet. Whether that means I’m in for a rough time later on, I’ll just have to wait and see.

Writing Excuses Episode 3, Season 1 has a fifteen minute discussion about this.

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