The Writer’s Art of Killing Your Darlings

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Photo Credit: The Murder of Rizzio, John Opie, 1787, painting, Gildhall Art Gallery, London: DuncanHill/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Many writers have heard William Faulkner’s advice to “kill your darlings” in the revision and editing process of their work. The phrase succulently describes the kind of tender, attached feeling many authors have for a turn of phrase, a scene that seems to work out perfectly, a beloved character, a grand location — that just doesn’t belong in the book we’re writing. There is no doubt that killing your darlings is a little about writer’s ego — we wrote this stuff and we hate to admit that it doesn’t belong or that it’s overdone and not as great as we thought it was when we wrote it — but it also involves thinking about the reader. Writers must do what’s right for the story to take the book where they think readers will get as much as possible out of the reading experience. That might include learning something, experiencing another place at another time, making emotional connection with characters and just having a good read and forgetting about the troubles of everyday life. Hopefully, a combination of most or all of these.

I’ve had ample opportunity to contemplate what it means to kill your darlings this past month while working intensely on revising and rewriting the first draft of Tales of Actaeon, the second book to my Waxwood Series. I’ve been digging deep into the story and its themes and characters, and it’s made me realize that killing your darlings can come at every level of the complex tapestry that makes up a novel, especially a novel in a series.

On it’s most basic level, killing your darlings might mean taking out some of the most lyrical passages in the story. When I began writing and publishing in 2017, I was heavily influenced by the work of Anais Nin. Nin was a strong advocate for poetic prose, a style of writing that involves the use of poetic language and tropes to present imagery that creates multiple layers to the story being told. Her book Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories, which I read when I was sixteen, completely changed my perception of what fiction is and what it can really do, how it can touch readers and evoke emotions in the subtlest ways. So much of my writing developed in this direction and my first published work, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories is a book of contemporary short stories in this vein. The Waxwood Series, as I explain here, was originally a novel in three parts and in its evolution, the storyline in Tales of Actaeon was the only one that survived more or less unchanged. At the time, I was very much engrossed in the poetic prose style, so much of the first draft taken from that novel is in that style.

However, like all writers, my style has strengthened and evolved. I am now more careful with my choice of language and imagery and I try to use splashes of poetic prose where the story really benefits from it. Subsequently, I found myself killing a lot of those darlings in this book. For example, here’s a passage of poetic prose I took out of the first draft of Tales during this rewriting process:

“A circle of shanties appeared through the dim, looking as if they had been constructed by hand in a hurry. Bare mud led up to narrow doorways except for one shanty where someone had tried to plant roses. But the flowers were charred as if a fire had rolled right through them. The only color among the shades of black, mud and gray were sprigs of wild spearmint. Their pointy leaves and pungent scent made his [the protagonist, Jake’s]  eyes water.”

While I won’t deny I’m proud of this passage, the story has changed so that it no longer needs this lavish description of what is a minor element in the story. Had I left it in, it would have slowed down the pace.

Killing your darlings isn’t just about removing pretty words that don’t fit, though. It’s also sometimes about the bigger stuff in stories, like subplots that distract from the main storyline. For example, I’ve mentioned here that Vivian is the unofficial protagonist of the Waxwood Series and her character appears in every book of the series. To this end, I wrote the first draft of Tales (which focuses on Jake, Vivian’s brother) with a subplot involving Vivian told from her point of view. But when I began to dig deeper into the story and uncover more of its themes, I realized Vivian’s voice didn’t need to be there. The book is about Jake and his emotional and psychological maturity as a Gilded Age young man. So I took out Vivian’s voice and the subplot, though Vivian herself still appears in the book.

Killing your darlings can also mean killing off a character. When I wrote the short story “The Rose Debutante”, a sort of prequel to the first book of the Waxwood Series, I found myself including a character whom I thought would fit into Tales. But I found the more the character inserted himself into the plot, including the climax of the story, the more he detracted Jake from the emotional and psychological journey he takes in the book. The character didn’t have a logical place in Jake’s journey, though his absence did have an effect on Jake’s psychological reality. But to convey that in the story, I didn’t need to have him appear as a character. So I removed him. He may or may not make an appearance in the later books, but for now, he is one of the darlings that needed to be killed off to make the story strong and complete.

To find out more about Tales of Actaeon, go to this page. And if you want to learn more about the Waxwood Series, I have a page for that here.  

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