Ruthless Writing: Murder Your Darlings
So, I've decided to turn the broad topic of ruthless habits into a blog series of sorts. I say "of sorts" because this is largely loose and unplanned, so I'm not sure how many entries it will entail or how regularly I'll post them. But from time to time, when fancy strikes, I'll write a bit about taking those gloves off and getting your hands
Die, Die, Die My Darling
Now, when I say you should "murder your darlings," I am not telling you to shoot your girlfriend, drown your puppy, or poison your goldfish (and I am prepared to testify to that effect in a court of law). This phrase is actually quite an old one in the world of writing, and there's a good chance you heard it long before stumbling onto my little section of the multiverse. I first read it in Stephen King's On Writing (which I'd recommend to any budding scribe, whether you're a fan of his work or not), but it's usually attributed to a lecture series by renowned writer and literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who said, "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."
Most of us have been there at one time or another. The muse lights on our shoulder and the words come pouring out, seemingly of their own volition, and before we know it we've written something beautiful. We read that glorious sentence (or paragraph or scene) again and again, proud to have produced a string of words that we know rivals anything in one of the latest bestsellers. Then, we continue on with our work, fingers crossed that the rest of the manuscript will measure up. Perhaps, if we are well practiced, we are lucky enough to produce several of these darling moments of literary enlightenment. They help to keep us moving through the tough parts, feeling like greatness is always just outside of our fingertips, and if we keep lunging forward we might even grab another handful or two.
And so comes revision. We steel ourselves and break out the axe, ready to chop our manuscript to pieces in service of style, structure, and a good yarn. We cut a swath through our work, weeding out the bad, the boring, and the watered down, and then—gasp—it happens. We find ourselves staring at one of those little pieces of greatness that we so loved, one of those darlings, and are forced upon a horrifying realization. It doesn't serve the story.
Must My Darling Die?
This can be a tough moment to wrestle with, particularly for a new writer. When you're still struggling with the nuances of the craft, still questioning whether or not this is even the path you were meant for, chances are the last thing you want to do is cut away one of those shimmering beacons of hope and potentiality that says you might be a damn good writer one day if you keep at this. Those are the parts of your work that you want to cling to. They validate all those days spent laboring over a keyboard. They eclipse all of the odd looks you've ever received from doubters and naysayers. The last thing you want to do is put your finger on that backspace key and pretend like they never existed.
But you must. Every single word that you put in front of your reader must serve a greater purpose. Anything that does not impart character, support theme, or move the story forward is just useless window dressing, no matter how well written and no matter how proud of it you are. If you want to save those words to remind yourself what you're capable of, that's perfectly fine. Paste it into another document, save it, print it out—hell, post it on your blog. But do not leave it in your story. Do not succumb to the temptation of fruitless self-indulgence. If all goes according to plan, your reader will never have the chance to thank you for it, but chances are you will thank yourself later.
And don't worry; it gets easier. You'll probably always have those conflicted moments from time to time, hesitant to let go of a particularly attractive piece of text. But the longer you engage in ruthless revision, the more comfortable you will be hacking away at the unnecessary, and those moments of indecision will grow shorter and shorter. Then, one day, you may open up that folder of slain darlings and find they weren't even as pretty as you thought they were. As you continue to grow in the craft, what you once considered your best work may one day be an average Tuesday afternoon's auto-pilot, and on that day you will be thankful to have written ruthlessly. Trust me.
photo credit: Bryan Bruchman via cc