Monday, November 26, 2012

Kill Your Darlings

I have a long post at Fictorians today about what to do with your novel in the aftermath of NaNoWriMo so I'm going to try to keep this post short. Yea, I know. My chances aren't high. Still, I'm going to make the attempt.

There's something I said at Fictorians that I wanted to spend a bit more time with here. For the full story, check out the Fictorians post here. The short version is I've seen stories where the writer's unwillingness to trim out the fat i.e. his "darlings" (those bits that while the writer loves them don't advance plot or character) have poisoned the entire story and made it unpalatable. I've seen this tendency to keep "darlings" in stories I've rejected at Flash Fiction Online as well.

Stephen King coined the phrase "kill your darlings" in On Writing. For this we all owe him a debt. But, killing our darlings isn't easy. The first step in the process is identifying a "darling."

So, how do you know when something is a "darling" to be killed rather than a bit that needs reworking?

For me, there are three ways I know a section, or an entire story, is a "darling."

1. The section doesn't advance plot or character, or is misplaced.

These are the "darlings" you hope to discovery on your first editing pass. Sometimes they are hard to pick out though.  You may have a scene characters walking around a bazaar to set the place. If that's all the characters are doing though, the scene may really be a darling. The scene could be saved by showing character - what the point of view character notices - or somehow advances the plot by giving the reader a hint he might not realize at the time. I find my "darlings" tend to be more like "in jokes", funny to those who know, but incomprehensible to the rest of your readers.

In the play I mentioned in my Fictorian's post, I remember a "darling" where the main character's (a writer) characters were trying to figure out what an item was. The payoff for the scene was a bad pun. From a technical stand point, the scene is a good example of how point of view affects a story. From a storytelling point, the scene was a disaster as the joke didn't advance the arc in the play. It needed to be deleted even though more than 20 years later, I can still remember it.

Clever turns of phrases also fall into this slot. The image might be vivid, but if it's in the wrong spot, it's a "darling" that needs to be killed. As an example the phrase "threw it away from her like last week's rotten fish" is evocative but it doesn't belong in a love scene where the main character rips off her boyfriend's shirt and hurls it across the room.

2.  The section doesn't fit into any plot box.

I've written about the Hollywood formula, but in essence, the "formula" states that to bring the viewer a satisfying story, that story must hit certain "beats" and turning points. Some of these points are the "bad guys close in" and "all is lost" moments. If I can't name the beat the scene is serving, it is probably a "darling."

3. My readers' feedback is "hu?" or many people note a problem with the section.

Beta readers are invaluable. Sometimes the best feedback a reader can give you is "hu?" A "hu" means either your writing wasn't clear or the reader doesn't understand why the scene is in the story. The second is a "darling" that must be killed.

If a number of your readers are calling your attention to a particular section, you have a problem there. While the reader might not be able to articulate the problem, those sections need to be scrutinize. If the problem is that the section is a "darling" you may need to kill it. 

I had several of these "darlings" in Kalypso's Song, published in Shots at Remdemption. This story started as an experiment. I wanted to see if I could keep the feel of a Homerian story in a contemporary romance. I read about thirty different translations of the Odyssey, many of which were in the public domain to get the feel of the style. Yet, as I got feedback, the sections where I most closely imitated the Homerian-era voice were the ones were I received complains of being too "purple." Despite the fact that those bits were the ones I was the most proud of, I cut them because the were hurting my story.

"Killing your darlings" isn't easy. But it's necessary. I hope my guidelines for ferreting out "darlings" help make your writing strong.


Unknown said...

Excellent post, Nancy. I've had to kill a few darlings for my current project. Not fun, but necessary.

Eleni Konstantine said...

Great post, Nancy, and great timing for me too...

Nancy DiMauro said...

It does really stink when you realize you have to take something out that you really love. I try to console myself that I can always use the scene in some other stories. But, yea, it has to be done. I'm glad the post helped you.