One of the major philosophies of fiction writing is called “kill your darlings.” In it, anything is fair game when it comes to editing. No matter how much the writer loves a sentence or word or scene or even character, if it does not advance the plot in a tangible way, it must be cut. The end result is a clean, well-paced story with very little in the way of extraneous details.
Intellectually, I understand this philosophy. I read about it all the time. Stephen King talks about it in On Writing. JA Konrath goes on about it at length in The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. Numerous blogs about writing and publishing tell me every day via RSS that my loving something I write does not necessitate it being high-quality.
Emotionally, though, I have a hard time actually putting it into effect. Because until very recently, I have had a hard time reaching the needed objectivity with my own writing. I can’t say I’ve gotten there yet with my novel, but not a lot of time has passed since I finished it, even though I do have a lengthy set of revision notes already.
I have, however, reached that point with one particular short story. And that’s a start.
The Greater Good
My current short project has a killer first line, if I do say so myself:
When I think about the end of the world, I taste Cheetos.
I even have a pretty decent first-person voice and some neat ideas regarding characterization. I started with an intricate idea of a post-apocalyptic society that had three warring factions: religious crazies, totalitarian government, and everyone caught between them.
Unfortunately, I had no place for my story to go after that. All of my ideas just didn’t pan out. I wrote nearly 4000 words, but could see no foreseeable roundness to the story. There was no arc. The whole story had no point, no ending.
And then I did something stupid. I saved a draft of another story over this one. I overwrote the file because I got my titles confused late one night. The next day, I was able to recover the first 1500ish words of the story, but the meat of what I had written was gone.
Since I was having problems with it anyway, I decided to see my accident as an opportunity rather than a setback. I set out to rework the story from a different angle, while still trying to work the same ideas into the piece. And I got nowhere. It wasn’t writer’s block, per se, because I was able to write blogs and revise my other stories, even plot out a basic arc for another novel, but I just could not see this story going anywhere, either in plot or salability.
So I decided to shelve it. There was nothing else I could do. I focused on the couple of other stories I was revising and decided not to touch this one for a while.
And then it hit me.
I was going about it all wrong. I was too attached to certain ideas to see that they weren’t working for that particular story. So I decided rewrite in an entirely different direction from a pivotal moment early in the story, completely removing the problematic elements.
And you know what? I should be able to finish the first draft of the story this week, which means revisions and submissions within the month.
All because I was able to finally kill one of my darlings. I had been so caught up in writing that one particular arc that I was blind to see that it was just not a good story. When I reworked it and completely removed any trace of the warring factions from the story, there was an Aha! Moment where all the pieces fit together perfectly.
Now I understand why the pros say that “kill your darlings” is the way to approach editing and good writing in general. Sometimes things don’t work out. And when that happens, we have a responsibility to our readers not to force them. Making the choice to completely rewrite the second half of my story was painful, but it allowed me to move on and write a much better and potentially salable story.
As I watch my wife read my novel’s manuscript, I see her marking sections that might very well be my darlings. But killing them won’t be so hard now because I’ve done it once, and I’ve seen how their removal can help clean up the writing. The initial concept of “kill your darlings” didn’t sit well with me, but in practice, I don’t see how good stories can be told otherwise.
Resurrecting Your Darlings
Even with that in mind, I’m kind of sad that the story I initially wanted to tell just wouldn’t work. I liked it, but I just couldn’t find a place for it to go. And that’s the heart of killing your darlings: if it doesn’t fit in any capacity, it has to go.
The thing is, though, that the darling I killed isn’t really dead.
Just because I removed that nugget of an idea from this story doesn’t mean that it won’t fit into another. The beautiful thing about being a writer of fiction is that we can repurpose and recycle killed darlings as much as we want. After all, no one sees the unused scenes, phrases, words, and characters besides us. The killing of darlings is done entirely in private, and we have the power to resurrect them whenever we need to.
If you love it, kill it. But if you kill it, keep it. You never know what might be the nugget of the bestseller you’ll write ten years down the line.