Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
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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.

This 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.

Let's begin.

What Do You Mean By 'Darlings'?

On 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 boards.'

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 and Hemlock, 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.

We 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 absolutely should.

So You're Saying All My Darlings Have To Die?

Oh, 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.

Every 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 your 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.

It's also 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.

The 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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