Odds & Ends 2/18-2/24 (aka Killing Your Darlings)

After a little birthday hoopla last week, this week it was back to the books—both reading and writing (or re-writing).

I have to admit, it wasn’t easy to write this week either. I’d come to a section that I knew needed significant restructuring, and I wasn’t keen on taking it on (again). But I think my biggest hesitation actually had more to do with the fact that I knew what needed doing, rather than being unsure.

You see, there’s a popular piece of advice passed down among writers that everyone knows but no one wants to heed: “kill your darlings.”

There’s some debate about who actually coined the phrase—many attribute it to William Faulkner, some give credit to Anton Chekhov, others Oscar Wilde—but it would appear the first documented example of the phrase actually came from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, an English novelist, poet, and anthologist, in his 1914 Cambridge lecture “On Style.” Though to be fair, he actually said “Murder your darlings.”

Regardless of its origin or exact wording, the meaning of the phrase is unavoidable. A writer must be able to get rid of their most beloved and/or self-indulgent scenes or lines if they want to really refine their work. Even when it hurts.

And this section of my project had a couple of darlings. One was actually a scene I’d envisioned fairly early in the project’s direction, one that served as a guiding star during the first draft as I wrote scenes leading me forward to that crucial moment. But I knew. I’d known for a while now that it wasn’t working. The feeling the scene evoked was right, but how it was coming about just didn’t make sense anymore. I was trying to force it to keep that original picture that had popped into my head. But this week, I had to start from scratch (or near to it) to find a way to create the necessary tension with more sensible action.

I did it. It was slow-going, but I did it. Once I got started, it didn’t feel so terrible (it’s always fun to write something new), but I will admit it was a challenge to keep myself from looking at previous drafts for “guidance.” It’s hard to let go of those ideas you’ve played out in your mind for so long.

But I guess if it was easy, the advice would go more like “drink coffee with your darlings.” Which still might be a nice thing to do before you murder them.


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