Writing Technique: Killing Your Darlings

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the second part of WritingExcuses podcast Season 1, episode 3 . I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Diagnosis

  • “Killing your darlings” relates to chopping out parts of your novel that you may love, but that still need to go.
  • When you write something and become very attached to it, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be cut out.
  • For the sake of the whole, you have to cut your really good bits.
  • It is not a negotiation process: it has to go. If you as the author leave it in – the editors will get you to cut it.

A plot, a character, or some dialog might be great when you first write them, but by the end of the story they no longer fit well. Think of it like a favourite t-shirt. It’s really comfortable and there’s some great memories associated with that t-shirt… but there really does come a time when you have to stop wearing it out… and then later there’s a time when it is no longer even good enough for ‘just around home’. Let it go with dignity, before it literally falls of your body…

Prognosis

  • Not killing your darlings ruins more first books than a lot of other things.
  • Writers need a million ‘practice words’ to hone their craft: very few people will have a ‘first book’ that is worthy of publication.
  • Feel free to get a second opinion; reading groups can be great for finding darlings.
  • The rewrite process is excellent because it helps you see with hindsight and distance.
  • Recommended watching: See the Deleted Scenes of The Sixth Sense with the alternate ending. The director (apparently) gives a great exposition on why he had to cut it.

I know in the past I have found some darlings, and it has taken me a while to accept that they must be excised like a cancer. When you’ve found a darling you can confirm it: Select the text and listen for the inner-author screams at you “Noooo!” as your finger nears the delete key.

Dealing with Loss

  • You could keep a file of ‘deleted scenes’ and then publish them as ‘extras’ on your blog.
  • Keep a document with your ‘great ideas’ so you can look at them for future projects.
  • Realise that the more books you write, the easier it will become. This is not your masterpiece.
  • Recognise that you are a creator and you can create something new.

The last two points especially spoke to me. In the past I have mistakenly considered word count to be a metric of my writing progress. The only importance of word count as a metric is whether my story is too long or too short for my intended audience, genre and story type.

Other than that, word count can actually be a hindrance to me, especially when it comes to cutting ‘darlings’. If I am influenced by my growing word count, then I will be less likely to embrace cutting a few hundred or thousand words. The true metric should be the quality of the story, not the word count. If making a chapter better means cutting out 30% of the text, then it should be a no-brainer.

I realise now that my first novel will not be my masterpiece. I don’t want to think that it is or I would be horribly disappointed. Each story I write is a step toward my masterpiece. The purpose of the first million words is practice.

Avoiding the Symptoms

  • Get readers to read your ‘darling’ and ‘non-darling’ versions and tell you which they liked better.
  • Practice cutting darlings (what a sadist!)

And a little parting motivation :

  • Writing your second book will make you much better writer than always working on the first.
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