We writers are known for killing off characters in creative ways. Wood chippers are a favorite method. (Oh, I’m the only one who does that? Uh…never mind. I’ll just…move that thing back into the garage.) Yet the writing adage “murder your darlings” did not originally refer to killing characters but cutting out unnecessary words. While William Faulkner and Elmore Leonard have been credited with it, the original quote is attributed to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote:
“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.”
It’s a hard lesson to learn, especially as a young writer. One of my early writing coaches, after reading thirty pages of the novel I’d submitted for her workshop, turned to me and said in her lovely Texas drawl, “The first ten pages are beautiful. Get rid of them.”
At the time, I’d only been writing for a few years, a self-taught novelist with a thin skin but a lot of passion. I fell in love with every throbbing adjective I wrote, every artful passage, every quirky character. Criticism from someone I respected hurt me to the bone. After a good cry in the ladies’ room, bemoaning the wasted effort, I eventually figured it out. I was a victim of my own inexperience and impatience. I was in such a big, hot hurry to finish a novel and get published that I didn’t understand a fundamental part of fiction: it’s not really about the writer.
Sure. I’m writing it. I’m throwing my whole being into it, my heart, my soul, my entrails, maybe giving the characters some of my own traits and experiences and burning a few pots of brown rice in the process. But in the writing, it’s not about me. It’s about serving the story. It’s about engaging the reader. Yes. The ten pages may have been lovely, but all those words did nothing to advance the plot, create tension, seed in backstory, or develop the characters. Anything which doesn’t do this can easily distract the reader or even kick him or her out of the story altogether. These are the “darlings” that Quiller-Couch and others advise us to kill with our metaphorical wood chippers.
Yet the writing of those ten pages was not a waste. On the contrary, they helped me get to the next forty pages. They helped me develop a greater knowledge of the character. In other instances, ten pages of backstory can boil down to one or two pithy sentences. When used at the right time, these bits tell volumes about the character. For example, Bill has a deep, dark secret in his past. It gives him night terrors and a strange revulsion to librarians and laundry detergent. However, he has a plot to arc through. Interrupting that plot for a twenty-page accounting of everything that led to his fear of Woolite might be taken as disrespectful to your readers and can cause them to lose interest. Do we need to know every detail, just because you already wrote it? Not necessarily. But if you, the writer, did not know this information, you couldn’t have Bill hesitate at a critical moment when Mary, wearing a freshly hand-washed angora sweater dress, desperately needs his help with her Dewey Decimal System. Instead of leaving the main action to talk about the evil librarian babysitter who forced a five-year-old Bill to wash her delicates, Bill could merely recoil, have a couple of words of interior monologue like, “Ugh. Woolite. I hate Woolite,” and make some excuse to Mary about why he flaked out of their conversation. Now the reader knows that Bill has some serious damage, which may affect his relationship with Mary. Maybe in a quieter moment in the story, he can share a bit more. Like why he sends his laundry out and can’t walk into a library without breaking into a cold sweat.
It’s your choice. What to retain, and sometimes more importantly, what to leave out, can make a difference between an engaging story and one your readers want to send through the digital wood chipper.
Feeling squirmy about completely eliminating those darlings? Save them in a special folder. You never know what you might need later: for another book, or to just look back once in a while, as your writing improves, and feel good that you knew how to cut something that didn’t work.