This blog post is not about writing a very non-HEA (“Happily Ever After”) ending to your book. It’s about the always painful process of editing characters, (story)lines, or backstory you love out of your manuscript. The prior is mostly painful to the reader but the latter can be extremely painful for an author. You never see a literary murder spree coming until you’re holding the axe. Yet, killing your darlings is one of the most respectful things you can do for your readers and I’ll tell you why you should be doing it.
The phrase “in writing you must kill all your darlings” originated from American author and Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner. Author Stephen King added to it by saying: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
You can recognize a darling by one, very painful, marker: you excuse their existence at all costs. They are:
…that one sentence you love but which distracts from the scene in question (“But it’s utterly brilliant and I want it on my headstone when I die!”)
…that side character you put in to honor your wife (“And she looks like her too! Who wouldn’t want to read about such beauty in such a beautiful package?”)
…that animal rights storyline in your literary romance that should really focus on the family of the main character (“But everyone should care about animal rights, and real people have multiple interests too!”)
…that piece of backstory that even you skim over when re-reading your work (“But people need to know this in order to understand my main character!”)
“You can recognize a darling by
one, very painful thing:
you excuse their existence at all costs.”
Killing our darlings is both an emotional and a practical challenge. We call them “darlings” for a reason. You are proud of them, they carry memories from your real life, and you’ve spent time sculpting them. Practically speaking, cutting a character or storyline from a manuscript constitutes days of work lost and it’ll take forever to do. It’s much easier to just leave them in, right? Well, it is, but does it make your work better?
Every manuscript will undoubtedly end up with a multitude of your darlings—and it should! There are sentences and scenes in Survival Instincts I absolutely adore and which every person who has read the book has commented on positively. To be clear: there is nothing wrong with darlings, unless they stand in the way of good storytelling. Then they must be axed.
“There is nothing wrong with darlings,
unless they stand in the way of good storytelling.
Then they must be axed.“
I’ve always been very good at killing my darlings. I’m a practical person by nature and if something in my WIP (“Work In Progress”) needs to go, it needs to go. That said, it is never fun. I am a wordy writer. If I were allowed, all my books would be 160.000 words+. I like writing multiple storylines, lots of characters, and endless dialogue. Publishers frown on those sorts of things, so I have to be mindful of all the darling storylines, character, and dialogue I put in my writing so I remain around or under the 100.000 word mark.
I will tell you the one thing I’ve realized that might make it easier to cut darlings from your work: your readers won’t automatically love your darlings because you do. In fact, if they stand in the way of the flow of the work, if they take space away from your main characters and storylines, or they tell things you should be showing, your darlings might be taking away from the experience you’re trying to give your reader. Taking these beloved snippets out of your work shows you respect your reader more than you value your ego as a writer.
“Your readers won’t automatically love
your darlings because you do.”
Do yourself and your readers a favor. Open your current WIP, read it through, and look for darlings. Once you’ve found them, decide if they are there because they add to the story or only because you love them. Once you are ready to send your manuscript off to proofreaders, make sure to ask them about some of the darlings you decided to leave in. If the answer is neural to negative, check them again to see if they are ready for the cutting room floor. I promise you that cutting things out of your manuscript that only you love will not only improve your manuscript, it’ll make you a better writer.