Monday, November 12, 2012

Ruthless Writing: Murder Your Darlings


Last month, I did a little musing on the art of making your characters hate you, calling it "ruthless writing." It has since occurred to me, however, that abusing your characters is far from the only way to write ruthlessly. In fact, I'm not sure I can think of a better word to describe what I believe is the perfect writer's mindset. You should be ruthless every time you sit down at that desk and summon the creative forces. After all, every editor, agent, and reader who ends up aiming their eyes at your precious story has absolutely no reason to treat it with kid gloves of any kind. They expect to be entertained, and if you cannot meet that one provision, they will ruthlessly close your book.

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 bloody dirty. Today, I'm going to talk about those precious darlings of yours, and the liberal relationship they ought to have with the chopping block.

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

18 comments:

  1. It sucks when the best part has to go, but it happens!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those tough decisions can be the difference between a good story and a great one! Thanks for stopping by, Alex.

      Delete
  2. Murdered my darling prologue in my completed manuscript. Took me months to get around to it; it was the last thing I revised. The prologue was beautiful; it gave me the passion to write the whole novel; it is saved on a disk in the "things I cut" file; it is no longer in the now-edited manuscript.

    It was gruesome, but it had to happen. We're all better for it.

    RIP, dear prologue. I always knew you would have to die, but it was sad to see you go. (insert funeral dirge here)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've certainly been there before, putting off that one last cut that's toughest of all until the very end. Then you have to bite the bullet eventually, and that can be tough. But those are the moments that separate the wheat from the chaff, as they say, and your work is almost always better for it.

      Thanks for reading, Juturna!

      Delete
  3. Joss Whedon is the master at this. He kills off his darlings all the time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Haha, Joss is a darling killer of a different breed. In fact, it's usually the fan's darling that he's slaying!

      Thanks for the comment, Maurice!

      Delete
  4. Yup, there's no place in compelling, gut-wrenching, mind-boggling and life-altering (if only for a day) fiction, for those tiny pieces of verbiage that draw more attention to themselves than to the story.

    Kill them ghastly darlings!

    I must say I've never been afflicted with attachment to my own words, I am the most ruthless cutter and butcher of manuscripts I know. So far, it's payed out. But I did keep everything I exorcised out of the story, and hopefully it'll serve me one day to remind me of how far I've come. And believe, most of what I've cut is awful so I'm glad I murdered my darlings and garden gnomes alike. ;)

    Thanks for a great post, James!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm usually pretty capable of letting go of something when I know it doesn't serve the story, but I've definitely had a few conflicted moments. For instance, it once took an editor's feedback to convince me that a section of a story needed to be reworked, at the cost of losing one of the coolest scenes in the whole thing. In the end, I saw that he was right (of course) and did the necessary deed, and the story was indeed better as a whole. It sounds like you won't have too much of a problem with blasting your darlings to smithereens though, and that's the right attitude to have!

      Thanks, Vero!

      Delete
  5. Heh, I was just in this situation yesterday. I wrote a scene that I really loved, but when I read it in the context of my re-write, I realized it had to go. I have a separate file for beloved deleted scenes, which mentally makes it much easier to remove the actual ms. That way I still have them!

    BTW, check out my blog today if you get a chance. I have a shout-out to your last post on Ruthless Writing. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It does make it easier if you hang on to those bits and pieces for a rainy day. Who knows? You might even get to incorporate their essence into some other work down the road!

      Thanks for the comment and for the shout out, Camille! I'll be sure and swing by your blog when I get the chance. :)

      Delete
  6. I'm so guilty of trying to keep everything. I don't, but darn it if I don't fight hard for it. Then after I've wasted 30 minutes trying to get something to work, I cut it and it's like ripping my hair out. It's getting easier...
    ...it's for the best!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It can be painful, that's for sure! It's one of those funny things about the two sides to the writer coin. When you're in the writing phase, you're pushing yourself to produce as much as you can. Then when you switch over to the editing side, you run roughshod over everything you struggled to get down on the page. But that's what it takes to make a good story—no pain, no gain!

      Thanks for reading, Krystal!

      Delete
  7. I'm never done editing because I completely agree with murdering these words, the ones which serve no purpose at all other than to stoke the fire that burns with pride. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's the right attitude to have, Diane! We mustn't let our ego get in the way of our story.

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  8. Hey you! I gave you an award :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suppose the link might help: http://www.ashleyheckman.com/me/if-you-are-reading-this/

      Delete
    2. Thanks so much, Ashley! Unfortunately, I have to stick to my ""award free blog" commitment, but so I'll have to decline. But thanks so much for thinking of me! I'll swing by your blog and check it out.

      Delete
  9. This is wonderful! I love the bit about hoping. That's the thing that really got me to make my final decision to sign with my agent; she had this amazing optimism just leaking out of her pores when she called to offer representation.
    coach training

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for reading!