On Writing: How to Kill Your Darlings

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How to Kill Your Darlings

Sorry, honey. But the tighter you clutch it, the more it needs to go. You have to kill your darlings if you want to move forward as a writer. Here's how.

1. BUT THIS IS WHERE IT HAS TO BEGIN. Really? Says who? What would happen if it started earlier? Faster? Did you start with a dream, a character looking in the mirror, or a scene that involves disgusting bodily functions? Are you completely unwilling to compromise that first line at all? If so, you probably need to kill it. Resave your doc and start hacking.

2. BUT THIS IS THE PERFECT METAPHOR. Um, guess what? No one really cares. Being cute/clever doesn't win over the reader. Type the word "like" into the Find search box and see if you can slice out any of that gristle. Of course, *I* don't have to-- my agent murders them all like a badger at a kitten tea party.

3. BUT I CAN'T LET THAT CHARACTER SUFFER. You want to hear a book idea that never sold? "The perfect girl lived a happy life and got everything she wanted. The end." If you want the reader to care about your protagonist, she has to be just as flawed and strange as the rest of us. Don't make her a pariah, but make sure she has quirks, fears, struggles, and secret pain. And then see what else you can throw at her. Suffering makes us unique and ties us together, and we don't tend to like people who avoid the Noid of Turmoil.

4. BUT I NEED THIS SCENE. I see. You need it. But why? Because it moves your plot and character arc forward as no other scene can, or because it's cute or pretty or clever or came to you in a dream? If a scene isn't working and you keep trying to force it like a falling Tetris block, it might need to go. Or maybe that block fits somewhere else. The point is, if it sticks out like a sore thumb, prune it.

5. BUT THE NAME IS CLEVER. Oh, honey. No. You may not name your angel-masquerading-as-a-teen Michael Gregori. You are disallowed from calling a vampire Vlad or Spike. You are strictly forbidden from naming the villain Cruella deVil. I mean, seriously, do you think some poor woman gave birth to a chubby, yummy baby and said, "YOU WILL ONE DAY BE CRUEL, CRUELLA. MUAHAHA!" No. A name may "sound" good or dark or have a nice ring to it, but you're not fooling anyone anymore. Adolf and Damian were once really popular names and didn't take on nefarious feels until society dubbed it so. Most guys are actually named John or Jack or Steve. True story.

6. BUT THAT'S NOT THE WAY THE STORY GOES. Guess what, buttercup? If an agent wants to see revisions or an editor buys your story, things are going to change. How much do you want to move forward? What sacrifices are you willing to make? If you're not willing to change something for an agent, how willing will you be when an editor tells you flat-out that they require further changes to your precious angel? As I see it, once someone has sent me a check, I no longer own the story. They're my boss, and I have to make them happy, and if that means my heroine is now named Helga and she has a magical wooden leg, SO BE IT. If you don't want to play by those rules, I suggest you never try to have a book traditionally published and just write because you love it, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

7. BUT WHAT IF I CUT OUT THE WORDS AND THEY'RE GONE FOREVER AND IT'S NEVER THAT GOOD AGAIN AND WOE? Um, that's why you save the old draft and rename it before making changes. Hell, email it to yourself, if you're paranoid. Then start over fresh, bravely slicing paragraphs and giving yourself vast tracts of white space to fill with shiny new words. I've written ten books in three years now, and here's the honest-to-God truth: I've never once gone back to the original after making revisions. Throw your old shoes in the closet, lace on the new pair, take off running, and never look back.

8. BUT THIS IS HOW IT ENDS. Really? Show me where that's carved in stone. There are infinite ways to end a story and infinite ways to write those endings. What the writer wants to say isn't always what the reader wants to hear, and the ending will majorly determine if someone who finishes this book will pick up your next book. If an agent, editor, or writer you trust suggests a different way to end your book, at least consider it. It's easy to cling to the ending, just as it's easy to cling to the beginning.

9. BUT YOU SAID WE WERE DONE. Bad news. One round of revisions is rarely enough. Sometimes, the first big revision doesn't fully knit the story together. Sometimes, it just shows you how messed up things really are. And sometimes, like me, you rush through it and get sent firmly back with a smacked nose to do the dirty work. Even if your first big, painful, surgical, messy revision fixes things, you'll still have to go in repeatedly to smooth things over and pretty them up. And then come the copy edits. Heaven help you.

10. BUT EVERYONE WILL LOVE IT. Let me kill this darling for you right now: not everyone will love your book. Some people will probably hate it. Many people will feel indifferent, won't finish it, or will find things about it that make them squawk vehemently in their reviews. Kill the darling within you that wants to be universally liked. Kill the part of you that lets other people determine your value based on the number of roses or bullets or kissy-lips they give you on their blog. Kill that soft, squishy place in your heart that actually reads the one-star reviews. Kill that last darling, darling, and you'll be free.