Saturday, January 23, 2010

Nurture Your Darlings

"Kill Your Darlings" is, imho, the single most misleading, and dangerous, bit of advice that everyone always gives to a writer. It's not actually synonymous with "Edit Yourself Ruthlessly", which can be a good piece of advice, but people treat it as if it's exactly the same. It's actually just a short cut, and like all short cuts, it has a bad side. A very bad side.

First, what does "Kill Your Darlings" mean? There are different versions, but mainly it's that any bit of prose that you are overly attached to, or anything that stands out as better the rest, is probably hurting the rest of the story. As I said, it's a short cut. It is probably true of many of those bits, but not always true.

So what happens is this: the advice gets repeated among young writers as, "cut everything you really like." And then, as they repeat it and confirm it with one another, soon it's not a short cut, it's a rule. And it's good for you, so you've got to do it.  Right?

And, in terms of playing the odds, it's an effective rule. If you mindlessly cut out all the little things that you are most attached to in a story, you can turn an awkward or even downright bad story into a servicable mediocre story.

But you can never turn mediocre into great by killing your darlings. Great only comes from the stuff you love. Period.

Now, you may say, "But there are great writers who use that rule!" That's because they actually are just using that phrase to describe something else - something that isn't a short cut.

See great writers have pretty much come to terms with their own psychology. They know what's false and what's true in their own writing. They're actually doing what I call kicking out the dancing bears. (Which is what I'll talk about tomorrow.) Their real darlings have already been nurtured into greatness by the time they get to that point.

I was lucky, since the person who taught me about a "kill your darlings" type rule was Kate Wilhelm. On the first day of her weeks at Clarion, she said "If you have something in your story that is noticeably better than the rest, you have two choices. You can cut it out, or you can raise the rest of the story to that level."

In other words, you can settle ... or you can go for the gold.

This is really important because most of us have a sensitive spot around something that really matters to us. Whether it's childhood teasing or something more subtle, we learn to hide the things we like most. It's so easy for the "kill your darlings" to tap into this almost unconscious feeling, and give writers permission to play it safe.

The truth is, if something embarrasses you or excites you, that a clue that you should go after it! You may have to edit it ruthlessly, you may have to watch out for things that detract from the story. And until you are good at it, you will probably fail. But if you're going to write something really worth the effort, you've got to go after those darlings and find out if maybe they are the actual heart of the story.

Which is why, tomorrow, I will go through the existing versions of the beginning of this novel and finding the best parts, and cutting out all the rest.

See you in the funny papers.

1 comment:

L.C. Evans said...

Really good article, Camille. Thank you.