How To Recognize When To Kill Your Darlings
Chapters Completed: 21
Chapters In Progress: 6
Chapters Not Started: 7
“Chronicling The Craft” is an article series where I share my experience with writing my current work-in-progress (WIP), which is a fantasy novel. Every 5,000 words, I let readers know what I’ve accomplished since the previous article and share advice, discoveries, techniques, etc. Besides the word count in each article title, a “chapter ticker” at the top also tracks my progress as I use the skip-around / “writercopter” method to write the novel. Today’s installment celebrates the book reaching 85,000 words in length.
After seeing my October schedule fill up, I took advantage of whatever free time I had in September to write, write, write. In some ways it was easy, since not much was going on offline. In other ways, however, it wasn’t. One weekend in particular left me ready to yank out my hair. Between an important bit of world-building I’d previously overlooked and revising a scene I’d previously written because its tone (not so much the content) needed to change, progress slowed to a crawl for two sessions. But that’s behind me now. It’s time to celebrate the new milestone – and then get back to work!
So, what’s happened with the WIP since the previous Chronicle?
- Chapter 20 is done. *sighs, then collapses* This was an absolute bugger to write because of the curveballs I mentioned earlier. It’s also the longest chapter in the book now, and by a whopping margin in terms of word count. That tells me it’s going to need some serious tightening and cutting come revision time. So… I guess it’s still going to be a bugger for a while. *lol*
- I started hearing conversations for Chapters 10 and 21 in my head, so I started typing them while I could hear them. Those two sections will be my focus for the next few writing sessions.
- Not sure if this is considered editing, but I decided that the final scene of Chapter 24 doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the chapter but is still essential to the story. So, I moved it to the beginning of Chapter 25, which means I’ve got yet another chapter in progress. Gosh, I hate the writercopter method sometimes…
- Haven’t worked much on the backstory and character development appendices as of late, but they’ll be works-in-progress for… well, as long as my head is still in the world of this book.
Time to talk about a much-dreaded topic for writers: killing our darlings. Yes, the concept that sometimes we must remove an element from the WIP we adore because it doesn’t serve the piece well. Darlings can be as small as character names or overused words, or as story-altering as entire characters or scenes. As agonizing as the advice may be, myriad writers have stuck by it for 100 years. The phrase was first coined a century ago this year, by Arthur Quiller-Couch during his 1914 lecture “On Style”:
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
Writers usually wait until the revision and editing stages before they start disposing of their darlings. However, it’s never too early to recognize possible changes. You may even find some while writing your first draft. That’s happened to me with my WIP, and more than once. *gulp* Here are three examples from my experience so far, including why each darling is – er, um, ah – dead now and the new (and hopefully better) idea going forward.
Darling #1: Distracting Character Names (a.k.a. A Relatively Painless Cosmetic Change)
The Original Idea: It’s hard not to love the names of your characters when you’re first working on a story. That was the case with two of the WIP’s supporting characters, Tori (short for “Toriad”) and Aemon. The names fit each character perfectly, to the point that I didn’t want to change them.
How It “Died”: During a writing workshop, I read a page from the WIP where someone shouted the two names in this order: “Tori! Aemon!” When it was time for feedback, one unanimous comment from my peers was how those names – especially in that order – reminded them of singer-songwriter Tori Amos, and how that association distracted them from the story temporarily. Oops.
Lesson Learned: As much as I loved Tori and Aemon’s original names, they brought in an unwanted and distracting pop-culture association that I hadn’t intended and didn’t want.
The Solution: Both characters have new names. Tori has become Nito, and Aemon is now Doni. Even better, both names have grown me since I changed them, so I’m not too heartbroken about it in hindsight.
Darling #2: Illogic vs. Suspension of Disbelief (a.k.a. A Facepalm Moment That Still Stings)
The Original Idea: The first draft of the WIP features a scene where two other characters were fleeing panthers that were hunting them. Part of their rescue included them crossing a log fallen over a river, just before the river expands out for the crest of a waterfall. The scene seemed so awesome when I first thought of it, and it was fun to write, too!
How It “Died”: During a daytrip to Cape Cod over the summer, I was driving over the Bourne Bridge and noticed the trees lining each shore of the canal. The scene popped into my head then – and the truth hit me: Most trees aren’t tall enough to bridge rivers or waterfall crests like that. Duh.
Lesson Learned: When you’re imagining a story in your head, some scenes or actions may challenge a reader’s suspension of disbelief. Believability is essential in speculative fiction. If a reader finds any illogic, they may quit your story before the end. So, be prepared to revise sections to replace the illogical with the more believable.
The Solution: The rescue scene will have to be revised as part of Draft #2. The good news, though, is that the outcome of this scene won’t be affected. Only the method of rescue needs to change. Of course, it’s still going to hurt…
Darling #3: An Element Loses Its (Sword)Point (a.k.a. Surgery, With Lots of Blood)
The Original Idea: One of my favorite scenes of the WIP’s first draft is a swordfight that the protagonist Eva picks with another character. Wow! That was an incredible writing experience! Breathless and exhilarating, with strong action verbs and roiling emotions. I was so happy and proud of how it turned out, and immensely grateful I was capable of rising to the challenge it presented.
How It “Died”: Just a few days ago (yes, this is a fresh murder), I was brainstorming for this article and researching other writing blogs for pieces on “killing your darlings.” The swordfight suddenly came to mind – and I saw all kinds of problems with it. I won’t go into all of them, but the central issue is that the swordfight detours one of the story’s plotlines. The direction it takes for a few chapters afterwards hinders the WIP more instead of helping. Plus, shaving the word count will be one of the objectives for Draft #2. Currently I’m on track to reach 115K for Draft #1. That’s not going to fly with most agents for YA fantasy (the industry recommendation is 100,000 words or less), so I’ll have to make some tough choices soon.
Lesson Learned: This example cuts straight to the heart of darling-killing. If an element loses its purpose or doesn’t serve the story well, it’s time to break out the surgical tools – or, rather, hit the “Delete” button.
The Solution: The swordfight’s gotta go. (Noooooooooooooooooooo!!!) It’s as simple as that. Well, simple until you consider the impact of this change. References to the scene, interactions between characters, Eva’s thoughts and feelings at this stage in her internal journey – the scene deletion will affect a huge chunk of the WIP. Maybe if I keep telling myself that it’s all for the story’s benefit, it won’t be so painful. *whimpers*
Novel-writing is not an easy task. However, don’t discourage yourself by hyperfocusing on the negatives. If you believe in yourself and your writing and refuse to give up, old ideas we’re forced to throw out will always be replaced by lightbulb moments. That’s the best way to look at killing our story’s darlings: It may pain us to find those darlings, part with them, and decide how to resolve the “carnage,” but we must go through that process. When we do, our story will be stronger as a result – and so will we as writers.
Looking for tips on how to recognize your darlings and bid them farewell? Here are some, based on the experiences described above and wisdom shared from other writers:
- Use beta readers and critique partners. They’ll look at your story without the emotional attachments you have, point out what works and what doesn’t, and (like with Darling #1) find even the tiniest details your eyes missed. If multiple readers comment on the same issue, take the hint and address the problem during your next draft.
- Listen to your gut feeling. You know the saying, “Trust yourself”? That’s the jist here. Pay attention to your intuition if it tells you something’s wrong with an element of your work. (See Darlings #2 and #3 above.) This kind of hunch will trump any pride, excitement, or fondness you may feel for a darling.
- Stick to industry-recommended word counts. First drafts are meant to be word dumps. However, don’t grow too partial to anything you throw in there. Your novel should fit the industry-recommended word count range for its genre when you send queries to agents. If your WIP passes its genre’s benchmark, you’ll need to trim and condense during later drafts – forcing you to sever ties with some of your darlings.
- “Bury” your darlings in a safe place. Sounds morbid, doesn’t it? *lol* The point is, don’t delete your darlings and forget about them. Instead, cut the text from the WIP and paste it into a separate document. Or, give your second draft a different file name than your first draft. That way, if you realize those darlings still belong in the WIP, you can “resurrect” them, so to speak.
- Know which darlings you should fight for. Contradictory as it may sound, don’t go on a murder spree and get rid of all your darlings. What if you love a part of your story that truly works? Maybe there’s a solution that can fix the issue at hand while saving that darling. Natalie J. Damschroder touched on finding such compromise at Writers’ Village. The key here, of course, is making the right choices on what to save and what to remove.
For more advice on killing your darlings, click on the following links:
- “Is Killing Your Darlings Murdering Your Book?” (WriteOnSisters)
- “Killing Your Darlings: Learn to Self-Edit Like Joss Whedon” (Helping Writers Become Authors)
- “Why You Should Kill Your Darlings” (Helping Writers Become Authors)
- “Kill Your Darlings – The Real Meaning and Value of This Concept for Writers” (Inspiration & Originality Underlined)
- “Killing Your Darlings Is Not Enough” (Writer Unboxed)
Have you ever “killed a darling” in one of your stories? If so, how did you recognize that “darling” needed to go? If you haven’t, what are your thoughts on making tough choices for the sake of improving your story? Be honest! Share your thoughts by commenting on this post.
Next Chronicle: When the WIP reaches 90,000 words