‘Murder your darlings,’ and other assorted writing advice

Murder your darlings.

Every writer has heard this flip little nugget of literary advice, and though the attribution regularly changes, the mandate does not. Let’s consider.

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.

-Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggest cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)…I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’

If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited [to read your draft]. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.

-Stephen King

Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

-Samuel Johnson

It’s the nature of writers to fall in love with words, particularly their own. Clever turns of phrase excite us; we beam like proud parents when our protagonists take on lives of their own; a shapely plot twist can turn our heads. There is nothing wrong with indulging in the occasional fling-as long as it stops in draft. When time comes to make that final revision, however, you must harden your heart, sharpen the ax and murder your darlings.

Well, maybe not all of them. Just the shiftless ones, those precious freeloaders who are too busy looking good to do any work. Once you learn how to spot them, you’ll see them everywhere, in unpublishable manuscripts and in award-winning stories, in my work and hers and yours. There are no exceptions; even Shakespeare can be profitably trimmed.

-James Patrick Kelly

But seriously! How on earth might a writer benefit from cutting his/her favorite line, or quip, or sentence, or from presenting a beloved character with an untenable, awful, no good, very bad situation?

Writers benefit from this painful exercise in two ways: first and most basically, “worst-case scenarios” move story forward. If you’re feeling stuck or bored with what you’re writing, ask yourself two questions: “What’s at stake?” and “What could go wrong?” Then, let the shit hit the fan and see how your character reacts. It’s a surefire way into driving plot and creating an engaging narrative of conflict. Evict roustabouts, then force the rest of the bunch to tap dance a bit.

Secondly, murdering one’s darlings is also good and right because readers can sense when writers are overly impressed with themselves. At the worst, it’s a big turnoff. At the least, it upstages story itself. Case in point: I read a book on the aesthetics of consumerism a few years back, and boy, oh boy, did its author have a finely developed vocabulary! He peppered each chapter with dozens of ten-cent words and almost impossibly-clever turns of phrase. He bandied about expressions like “the chic of poverty” and “directionless spiritual odyssey” and words like “denuded” and “dramaturgy,” and I found myself poring over the pages with a pen and dictionary, enthralled, circling all the especially cool words he used and looking them up. The man was a human thesaurus. But guess what? A few years out, I couldn’t tell you a damned thing about that book; what was its central argument? What were the most compelling examples the author used? Did I agree or disagree with the premise? No clue on any count. Posturing is distracting to readers! Overwanking might impress them, but substance over form always wins the day.

Questions to consider

Which elements of you own writing are consistently critiqued by your peers? These critiques may help you to identify your own “darlings,” Do you love fancy attributions? Are you too easy on your characters? Do you use particular words or adjectives too often? List three or four darlings you might consider killing.

In one of the quotes I listed at the outset of this article, James Patrick Kelly claimed that even Shakespeare can be profitably trimmed. Feeling a bold alliterative license? Try your hand at “trimming,” shortening, or simplifying two of his most famous passages. What do you gain? What do you lose? Ultimately, do you agree with Kelly?

To be, or not to be, that is the question,
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished to die to sleep!

-Shakespeare, Hamlet

Juliet: O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

Romeo:[Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

Juliet: ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
and for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

–Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Further Activities

Food for thought. Kafka had a sign above his desk that said “Wait.” He was telling himself not to be too hasty in finishing a story, because he struggled with this. If you were going to put your own sign up above your desk to encourage you, what would it say? Write a few paragraphs explaining the word you chose.

Facing fears. Sketch out an idea for a very vulnerable character. Who are they? Where do they live? What do they look and sound like? What are they most afraid of and why? Now, write a scene in which that character is faced with the thing he/she most fears. Share and discuss.

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5 thoughts on “‘Murder your darlings,’ and other assorted writing advice

  1. thomask96 says:

    I was told by swedish and polish exchange students that learning german was horrible, and I guess they’re right, as we have weird stuff like “der, die, das” which we sometimes struggle with ourselves. “Viel Glück” studying german 😉

  2. thomask96 says:

    I was told by swedish and polish exchange students that learning german was horrible, and I guess they’re right, as we have weird stuff like “der, die, das” which we sometimes struggle with ourselves. “Viel Glück” studying german 😉
    (I feel bad for only commenting on the expression – I really liked the content of the article, too, although I am not brave enough to throw shit at the fan and risk the lives and well-being of my beloved protagonists :D)

  3. erinjbernard says:

    Haha, I’m glad it amused you. We English-speakers have the Germanic tongues to thank for so many of our most treasured words, including, of course, the timeless and ever-useful word, “shit.” I took a year of German in high school and would love to study it a bit more someday. For now, practicing Spanish and French. Danke schön!

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