Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Killing Your Darlings

I can't remember where I first heard the phrase, "Kill your darlings." It may have been at an RWA meeting, maybe in Stephen King's On Writing. Most likely, though, I probably just found it online somewhere and didn't really understand it until King's book. It's controversial, well-debated advice. Some people will tell you it means if you're stuck, cut the parts that you're attached to because you're probably favoring them too much. They'll say your darlings hold you back. Others will say it's advice to ignore. Why kill something that's good? It's okay to have darlings, they'll say.

After the week I've had, I have my own understanding of "Kill your darlings."

You're probably sick to death of this song, right?
It means, "Be able to let go." For whatever reason, you have to be able to let go, no matter how in love you are with it. Whether that means keeping something from the readers because there's no easy way to introduce it, or completely destroying a line, a character, a subplot, or even a plot. You have to be able to take the red pen to it.

Let go of the hilarious but out-of-character line, the unbelievable character trait, and the Deus Ex Machina Band-aid over the plothole. Continuity, character development, and believability are more important. If it gets in the way, let it go.
Let go of worldbuilding and backstory if you can't make it fit naturally into your story. Let go of the idea of showing off everything you've made, no matter how cool or deep or interesting it is. If it doesn't fit, let it go.

Let go of the character, the idea, or the name that's been done by someone bigger and/or better than you. It's not worth the copycat accusations at best and lawsuits at worst. No matter how much you love it, no matter how long you've used it, let it go.

Yes, some of these are from experience. That last one definitely is. God, it was so hard to ax, but when it's your untried idea versus George R. R. Martin's published work, Martin wins. I had no idea he'd made a superhero world where the heroes are called "Aces." I'm counting my blessings I haven't published anything in my series yet. It would have been a disaster for my career simply because I didn't know. So I had to take a kryptonite ax to the name I've had for my heroes for four years. The Aces are dead, long live the Arches.

So commiserate with me, writer readers. What darlings have you had to let go in a particularly violent fashion?

1 comment:

  1. Man, the worst of killing darlings is when you have to do so not because it's a fault in your story, but just because someone famous already did it fifty years before you. That just sucks so much.

    What I've found though is that killing darlings, even keystone story centerpiece inadvertently ripping off famous people darlings, acts like second thoughts. Stories heal around the gash, and letting go only makes you delve deeper, and whatever wells up to take the original's place is often just as good, or better. Pretty soon it seems ridiculous that it could have been anything else!

    Long live the Arches.