Killing Your Darlings

(c) Jo Naylor (Creative Commons License - Flickr)

(c) Jo Naylor (Creative Commons License – Flickr)

I don't remember which post on Google+ jarred my brain on this subject. It isn't something I think about very often. I don't go around chanting “Kill them! Kill all of the darlings!” when I edit — either for myself, or for my clients. I don't even keep it in my subconscious. It isn't a factor when I look at one of my novels — or at the novel of a client.

For some reason, I feel like I'm poking at a bee nest with this subject.

As always, these are just my opinions, written up in my straight forward sort of way.


What Does Kill Your Darlings Mean?

My understanding of it is this: Never become so attached to a scene, a phrasing, or a character that you are not willing to remove it from your story.

In application, I've seen a lot of writers (and by a lot, I really do mean a lot) take it a step further, making it mean “If you really like it, cut the darling to improve your story, because it obviously can't be that good!”

Maybe I'm being cynical. Maybe I'm being a hard ass about it. Some might venture that I'm taking a rather bitchy stance on this. Frankly, I prefer my interpretation: Be willing to remove scenes, phrases, and characters that don't work in the story in order to strengthen it.

I want to flip this on its ear for a moment. I want to take a look at the consequences of blindly cutting favored things in the effort to improve a novel.

Disclaimer: Sometimes it really is necessary to cut a favorite thing from a book. I've done it many times, because favorite doesn't mean necessary.

This is a discussion on the over reliance on this mentality to ‘edit' a novel.


The Risks of Cutting Your Darlings

After editing a lot of fiction in the last year, there is one thing I can say with confidence: It's often easy to tell when someone truly loved what they were working on. It's easy to tell when someone was in the groove, and they were able to create their writing in a mindset where darlings are formed.

The writing is often a step up from other scenes. The characters are more vibrant, more lively. The scenes are better in general.

These darlings, as they are, often create the entire atmosphere of a novel.

Cutting them would be slashing a knife to the novel's throat and letting them exsanguinate. Sometimes they need adjusted. But to remove them? It would cut away the life from the novel one terrible stroke at a time.

I'm of the mindset that novels can be improved — including the darling scenes.

Improvement, however, is not killing. Killing is a term to remove, to cut away, to destroy.

And by having the mentality of approaching edits and writing with the intent to kill your darlings, I'm growing into a firm believer that you're running the risk of killing that ‘something' that makes a novel appealing.

Don't kill your darlings.

Groom them.


When is it Necessary to Kill Your Darlings?

Sometimes, killing off a favorite scene or chapter or character is necessary. Sometimes, the phrase you so loved just doesn't work anymore due to how things prior in the novel have changed.

These darlings must go, if they no longer fit in the novel. This is much different than purposefully going out of your way to attack those favorite scenes in a fit of insecurity.

There is a large and notable difference between a necessary but painful cut and wallowing in insecurity. 

Because you like a scene, a character, or a phrasing doesn't mean it is bad. I am astonished each and every time that a writer cuts something like this for no other reason than it was a darling, and because someone posted a quote out of context on the internet, they have to cut this darling.

It sounds a little ridiculous when I type it out that way, doesn't it? Well, I guess that is because I do think it's a little ridiculous that someone would actually cut phrasings, sentences, entire scenes, and characters on the grounds that they are overly fond of them. That this driven creativity, born of love and self-appreciation, is a bad thing in a novel.

Next time you go to kill your darlings during editorial, please take a minute — take an hour's worth of them, even — and ask yourself this: Why am I cutting this darling?

Here is a handy little mental checklist I use to determine whether or not a character, scene, or phrase needs to be changed or cut:

  • Does it fit with the flow of the story?
  • Does its inclusion make the story stronger or enhance the atmosphere or intangibles of the novel?
  • Does it add clarity to the scene, the chapter, or the story as a whole?
  • Does removing the scene harm the flow or clarity of the story?
  • Does removing it alter your characters? If so, does the removal benefit the novel on a whole?
  • Why do I like this scene, this character, or this phrase so much? (Then I ask myself: If it stays, does it harm the story? If it doesn't harm the story…. it stays!)

Because there are those who watch me because of my editorial work, here is how I handle obvious darlings in a client's novel differently:

I don't handle them differently. I make comments as I see them — if the darling works (and often, I see the dramatic increase of quality when I'm in a darling scene) I tell them how to make the darling better. If it doesn't work, I try to point out the things an author might do to, well, make the darling better.

Darlings can get better.


Groom Your Darlings

Maybe it's the glass half-full approach. Maybe its the fact that I see too many authors disparage themselves in the effort to follow this sort of writing advice without being able to understand that darlings are a good thing in a novel.

Maybe it's my belief that darlings help make the story shine.

No matter what the psychological reasoning might be, I'm a huge fan of taking something good and making it great. There is a reason that phrase, that character, or that scene is a darling. Cutting is easy.

Bringing something to life, making something good into something great — that's hard.

Maybe I believe that ‘Killing Your Darlings' isn't the right way to approach it, but rather to ‘Change Your Darlings' is more of how I think novels should be approached. Change isn't a bad thing — it turns good books into great books. It can turn flawed, lackluster books into good books.

It all depends on how the author approaches their editorial. Some authors can naturally go about finding and improving their darlings to make them shine.

Others cut them, because that's the only thing they know how to do — because cutting to trim down can be perceived as a way to improve a story.

Sometimes it is necessary. Sometimes I will sit down with a client and tell them that a scene just doesn't work. I'll tell the client why, and make recommendations on how I think they could improve on what they have and fix the weak sections to turn their book into a better book.

I don't like telling clients I think they need to cut things. It happens often enough. And sometimes, the darlings are on my short list of things to be cut.

Some authors choose to cut, and give birth to new, better darlings. Some authors choose to keep the scenes, the characters, or the phrasing, and find a way to turn their darling into a important part of their novel.

Both ways can be right.

But, and this is only my opinion of course, those things were darling to you for a reason.

It often shows to readers.

Disclaimer: This is not advice to leave your darlings alone. This is my opinion that darlings, like the rest of most novels, do need edited to shine. But I do not believe that cutting for the sake of cutting, or because some internet quote told you to, is really an answer.

Grooming darlings can turn them into stars, though. If you cut them, they'll never get a chance to shine.

Give your darlings a chance. They might surprise you.

Sometimes they won't, though. That's when the axe needs to come down for the sake of your novel.

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The Productive Writer-The Anatomy of Book Revision | howmyspiritsings says February 2, 2016

[…] The final step in this stage is changing pretty passive prose into moving active phrases. This is where you “kill your darlings” those long pages of flowery description and those preachy author-narrator  monologues, It isn’t about taking out your favorite passages just because you like them either. They just have to have a purpose. This article “Killing your Darlings” by Jo Naylor explains this idea very well. Click he… […]

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