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.

A Public Flogging

Sometimes in life, you need to give yourself a kick up the backside. Search long enough on my blog and you’ll find quite a few of these types of posts where I adopt a “Woe is me” pose and wax lyrical about how I’m failing.

Why? Well it’s because I set myself feasible goals, then surround myself with obstacles that prevent me from achieving them. I choose to cross a river, find myself a boat and then proceed to beat holes into it before I set off. I’m also pessimistic by nature; if I’d gotten halfway across the river when the boat began to sink, I’d turn around and head back!

I give these obstacles fancy names as to distance myself from them; writer’s block, procrastination, blank-page syndrome etc. I constantly read “write, write, write..” yet I’m often reading it not doing it.

Take the title of this blog, amuteforamuse. I set it up as a driver to get the first draft of my novel doing it – back in 2013. The title came to me when I convinced myself that my muse just didn’t speak to me at all. The gargoyle from the image on the right-hand side of my blog actually sits on my desk and bears much of the brunt when I’m struggling to write – true to form, he has never spoken a single word.

It’s now 2015 and I’m still working on that first draft. But I’m not just working on that; a website, a world-building project, a sci-fi and fantasy reading list, a writing and publishing reading list are all vying for my attention. This year I’ve even started buying and selling sci-fi and fantasy books on Ebay to supplement my upcoming University fees. Due to this, I often find myself working on the one task that feels least like work, which means A Treasure Found, is getting lost amidst the crowd.

One of the main reasons is that I’ve become afraid of my own story. I can portray the plot, the world, the characters so much better in my head than I can in my writing at the moment. I envisage whole scenes in my dreams and yet they fall apart on the page. Like a child, I tell myself that if I can’t see it, then it can’t hurt me.

My writing will flow, and it will stall; I’m only human. But I need to make a change, I need to patch up that boat and get it back in the water. I don’t want sympathy; this post is called “A Public Flogging” not “Group Hug”. I know everyone has problems in life and they certainly don’t need mine.

I’m going to finish this post with a writing tip from an author who seems to have battled his inner-demons and is willing to tell others how to do it, Chuck Wendig. If you’ve also found yourself looking into that raging river aboard a sinking ship then I whole-heartedly suggest you visit his site. It isn’t for the light-hearted and his words care little for bruised feelings but often the truth is like that.


Neil Gaiman shares the secret of writing

I’m sure I’m not the first person to reblog this;

Neil Gaiman’s Secret to Writing

I see two answers in his response; the first few lines are as honest as he could be, whilst the rest of it could possibly be viewed as sarcasm, but at least he put in the time and effort to provide a creative answer.

Neil’s tumblr has been added to my list of things to do (in that space between brushing my teeth, putting the electric blanket on number 3 and falling asleep).

Writing even when you don’t feel like it.

For anyone who is serious about writing and has done some light research, they will have come across the same, similar phrases;

* Just write
* Write..write..write
* Treat writing like your day job

Up until recently I thought I understood what that meant; manage your writing as you would do anything else in life that you want taken seriously. It’s a mantra that I’ve adopted elsewhere in my life (work, education etc.) that I didn’t really think it warranted a mention. Of course, I’d treat writing seriously, when would there ever be a time when I wouldn’t?

The reason I mentioned recently is that I’m just on the recovering side of a major migraine; flashing lights before my eyes, feeling faint, dizziness and nausea. To top off all of that, I had a fifty-five minute drive back through busy traffic to negotiate before I could reach the only medicine that seems to work; a dark room, quiet, and a comfy bed. Now, three hours later, I still have a head filled with cotton wool, but the dizziness and sickness has gone and the pain is receding.

But, back to this afternoon.

With clammy hands and an experience of heightened awareness that comes with feeling faint, I sat at the umpteenth red light waiting to get home. With the windows up the car was too hot, with them down the wind made me feel worse. To settle my nerves, I fired up one of my podcasts about creative writing.

I had reached halfway through the podcast on the way into work even though I began to feel the slight tendrils of a migraine-in-waiting work their way through my head. I’d picked up some good points and was looking forward to the rest of it like a tired man thinks of his bed at the end of a shift.

But when the voice poured out from the speakers and filled my motorised version of Dante’s Inferno, it was a completely different animal; the words grated inside my head, the jingles sounded out of tune, and the points being made were being shuffled around my brain before I could get a grasp on them. If I was the tired man getting home, then I’d found my bed to be a bed of nails.

I couldn’t bear to listen to it so I turned it off. But, as the echoes of it still rippled in my mind, I found myself beginning to hate it. Not only the podcast, but it widened to writing, being creative. The migraine experience was causing me to deny anything that wasn’t in the here-and-now of pain and nausea. I couldn’t care less about this blog, the first draft of my novel and my website. These were all things that didn’t matter anymore, they were things that were too far off in the distance, too remote for me to deal with.

Looking back now, I realised that during that journey, I hated writing. Had someone offered to publish my book but only after working on it for a few hours more, I’d have said no. If I’d discovered my computer had been stolen along with all my work on it, I wouldn’t have cared. I was that detached from my regular routine.

So, as I sit in my chair recovering with a glass of iced coke, I feel I should pay a bit more respect to the advice that I find.

Of course those small beads of wisdom don’t suggest we should write ALL the time or beyond anything else that we could experience, but it does suggest (at least to me) that there will be times when you simply CANNOT write and, because of that, you should make more of an effort to write when you can.