Thoughts on Writing
#06: Kill Your Darlings
by Seanan McGuire
That's right: I'm advocating murder. Now, before you call the police to
report me as a hazard to the human race, I think we'd better take a
look at the thought that goes with the title, because it's going to
make a lot of things a lot more clear:
Kill your darlings.
You can save their wordy little corpses in a file where you can look
back on them with love -- I do -- but often, the little bits of text
that we're the most proud of have no business being in the middle of
the narrative. Nothing is sacred once the editing machete comes out.
is one of the proverbs of the writing world, and one of the hardest
instructions I've ever had to learn how to take. This time, we're
talking about identifying your darlings, killing them mercifully, and
finding a way to live with what you've done.
What Do You Mean By 'Darlings'?
the surface, 'kill your darlings' is one of those statements that makes
it look like all writers are psychotic. After all, aren't your
'darlings' the people and creatures you love the most in the world?
Without context, 'kill your darlings' means I'm planning to slaughter
Lilly, Vixy, Matt, and possibly Kate before the snipers take me down,
all in the interests of becoming a better writer. This is, thankfully,
not the case (especially since I doubt my ability to survive the
attempt to kill an angry Siamese, much less succeed in killing my dear,
beloved, heavily-armed friends and companions). Outside of literary
circles, someone saying they're going to go home and kill all their
darlings is probably cause for alarm.
Inside literary circles,
'kill your darlings' has a very different meaning. Your darlings exist
on both a micro and a macro scale. On the micro, they're those phrases
and lines and sometimes even chapters that you love the best of all,
the ones that make you hug yourself and giggle at the wonderfulness of
it all. On the macro, they're enormous chunks of novels, underlying
concepts about fictional worlds, entire plots, and beloved characters.
They're the things that writers look at and think, in their secret
hearts, 'people will totally write this on their inspirational quote
Your darlings are those places where you feel so much
like a writer you could explode. They're the things you remember during
the day with a smile.
And they're the things we're here to talk about killing.
But...But...Hold On A Second!
Sorry, can't. Lots of killin' to be done.
Possibly the best example of killing your darlings comes from the book Fire
by Diane Wynne Jones. Her protagonist, Polly, has a vivid imagination
and a tendency to write her adventures. One such adventure is rather
firmly criticized by another character, and when Polly looks at it
later, she finds herself writhing with embarassment. The bits in the
text that are the most mortifying are the ones that she was the most
pleased with. That is, sadly, very frequently the way with darlings.
The very attributes that make them become darlings in the first place
are often enough to make them stand out from the text around them,
becoming jarring, trite, or even, under some circumstances,
pretentious. No fun!
Other times, there's nothing wrong with the
darlings themselves, save that the story doesn't actually need them
there. They're the rocks that we build around, the things that we're
absolutely sure of. Unfortunately, the very stability that we treasure
sometimes means that the darlings become unchangeable, little fragments
of text that really belong in the previous draft. Or the one before
that. Or the one before that. They're our anchors. Sometimes, the
weight of holding up the rest of the story is enough to force them out
of date. That's when our anchors turn into the rocks that weigh us down.
Look: we love our darlings. That's what makes
them our darlings. If we didn't love them, removing them from the text
wouldn't be a problem; we'd see that there was a problem, and we'd fix
it. Unfortunately, love can make us blind, and frequently, we'll just
massage the text all around those darlings, trying to save them, unable
to see that every little tweak just leaves them jutting further out of
the water. We smash readers against the rocks of our darlings, and then
we wonder why they're drowning.
To switch metaphors in the
middle of the stream: when we're children, we have our security
blankets, and we love them to bits, because they keep us secure. As we
grow older, we may change everything else in our rooms, but a lot of us
keep those blankets even when they clash with absolutely everything
else we own, because they keep us secure. Only one day, we realize that
we don't need them the way that we used to. We've built safe,
comfortable spaces that aren't dependent on the security blankets. And
that's the day when the security blanket can go into the box, rather
than sitting in the middle of the bed. For a lot of us, that's also the
day when the room finally comes together. It loses its vague, barely
definable 'split personality,' and becomes a single place.
become blind to our darlings, and to their flaws, because we love them
so much. That's a good thing. It's wonderful to love. But it's also a
bad thing, because it means we refuse to get rid of them, even when we
So You're Saying All My Darlings Have To Die?
absolutely not. That's actually a fairly common misconception: people
hear 'kill your darlings' from writing teachers and read it in books
about writing, and decide that it's the holy writ of writing. Kill your
darlings and everything will be perfect. So they pick up their machetes
and go charging into their manuscripts, hacking out everything that
they feel the least bit of affection towards, and wait for the corpse
of their text to turn into a beautiful work of art. Sadly, they're more
likely to wind up with a mangled mess. 'Kill your darlings' doesn't
mean you have to kill all your darlings. It just
means that you need to look at them as critically as you look at
anything else in the text.
one of my books has managed to retain one or two of the bits of text
that I would call 'my darlings.' How unchanged those darlings are has
depended on the book; the more I write, the better I get at making my
security blankets blend in with the rest of the room. Almost every good
book has one or two darlings buried somewhere in it, and the more
practice you get at identifying them, the better you'll get about
figuring out which ones will have to go. Killing all
darlings is almost as bad as killing none of them. It'll leave you
bitter and resentful, with a lifeless piece of text, and that isn't
fair to anyone concerned.
Figuring out which darlings to kill is
a tricky business. Often, I find myself trimming them out of the text,
reading it over without them, and then making the determination as to
whether or not they should be put back in. About seventy percent of the
time, the answer is 'no, they shouldn't.' The other thirty percent,
those turn out to be the scenes that my readers tell me haunt them. The
power of the darlings is great when used correctly. That's also why the
power of the darlings needs to be used sparingly.
possible to kill half a darling without killing the entire thing.
Darlings are like starfish; you can split them down the middle, and the
piece that you keep will live on, doing just fine as a slightly smaller
creature. Obviously, I'm not advocating sentence fragments -- except
when I am; I love a good fragment -- but not all darlings are single
sentences. A darling can be anything from a chapter to a word, and the
larger your darling is when it starts out, the more opportunities
you'll have to cut, reword, and bring it into line with the rest of
your text. Of course, I am by my very nature an overwriter who trims,
rather than an underwriter who adds. You may find that taking a
single-sentence darling and turning it into a paragraph transforms it
from obstacle to asset. Don't be afraid to experiment.
Give Your Darlings A Decent Burial.
Toby books generate a lot of dead darlings. They are, after all, over a
hundred thousand words each, and generally go through three or four
drafts before my agent gets her hands on them (much less my editor).
All through the process, darlings are born and sacrificed in service of
the greater story. It's the circle of text. And those darlings have
included some of my favorite bits! Pieces that helped me figure out who
Toby was, pieces that helped me find her voice and nail it down in my
head, pieces that made her world more real to me...pieces that turned
out to be unnecessary as I built the rest of the story around them.
They anchored me until I could find the harbor on my own, and then it
was time to bury them decently.
I keep a file -- it's actually a
section of my continuity guide -- that's full of these dead darlings.
As stand-alone phrases and pull quotes, they still have a lot of power,
and looking at them can still make me smile and think 'yeah, I wrote
that, and it was pretty good.' They aren't lost forever. If I ever
publish a guide to Toby (ha ha ha), I'll probably use some of them as
chapter quotes and side bars, because they have value as text; they
just didn't work in the stories where they originally appeared. Others
can't be used for anything, being too specific to their original
locations, but they make me happy all the same.
Print out your
darlings and stick them to a corkboard. Make yourself a T-shirt. I know
one person who had a dead darling tattooed on the back of her neck,
because it didn't work inside the story, but it was, for her, such a
perfect piece of the world she'd created that she wanted to carry it
with her always. Your darlings are your security blankets, and no one
can make you give them up completely. Just learn to admit that
sometimes, they aren't enough to carry the text; sometimes, the
prettiest turn of phrase or most blazingly brilliant image in the world
doesn't do anything but slow your story down.
Learn to recognize
your darlings. Learn to kill them mercifully. Bury them cleanly, and
thank them for what they do for us as writers.
It'll make all the difference in the world.
© 2008 Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. Her first studio album, Stars Fall Home was released last year, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in 2009.
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