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Old 07-16-2017, 08:56 AM   #1
gmw
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Don't kill your darlings, just don't play favourites.

"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." (1916) Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (source)

This isn't so bad because it is quite specific. In here the advice is obviously in reference to an attempt at writing something deliberately stylistic. (I immediately thought of King and Straub's opening to Black House, which is curious considering what comes below.)


"In writing, you must kill all your darlings." (Goodreads version)
or “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” (UrbanDictionary version)
- William Faulkner (1919-1962)

What follows is not really having a go at William Faulkner, I don't have the full context for the quote, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt. I am having a go at the blithe use made of the quote on modern author-advice blogs.

The advice is trite and fatuous, even - perhaps especially - on a surface level. A literal interpretation (with regard to writing) of "kill all your darlings" tells me to go through my writing and find all the passages I like best and delete them. What rubbish!

This link notes similar advice coming from to Hemingway and Stephen King, and interprets it as meaning "Stop writing for your ego, unless your ego's buying the book."

First, it's a little odd getting this advice from Stephen baseball-essay-in-my-short-story-collection King. (Hey, I like King, I really do, and since I'm not a baseball fan perhaps finding such an essay in a horror story collection could be deemed appropriate - aaahhhh! - sure scared the crap out of me.)

Second, "don't write for your ego" is good advice, so if that's what they mean why not say it? Advice should not be cryptic. Also, the chances are that if you're writing for your ego then killing all your darlings is not going to leave you with much - so just don't do that, okay?

"kill your darlings" is one of those phrases that should have been killed a long time ago.


The much better advice is almost as brief, if not quite so dramatic:

Do not play favourites

Expanded, that means: Review your favourite passages with the same dispassionate eye as you review the rest of your work. If you do that then there should be absolutely no reason single out your "darlings" for annihilation.

It is possible that writers will enjoy writing some passages so much they will get carried away and write more than they should. Such passages may be due more than average trimming, and these will be found if you don't play favourites.

But, equally, sometimes you especially like some of what you wrote because it works so well! Yes, by all means question whether it really does work - just as you would any other passage - but don't delete them just because you like them. Sheesh!

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Old 07-16-2017, 11:56 AM   #2
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I agree with you in principle and in general. We must never generalize.-) I think it's possible to apply the same logic to the quote from Quiller-Couch. Even by itself and out of whatever context it might have had, I think it's possible to see that he was talking about indulging one's cleverness. Such bits always stand out in a story like a cherry on mashed potatoes. <like that, see?) Like you, I think it's okay to keep the ones that show up as a natural part of the work, like gravy. (someone stop me!)

Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking piece.
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Old 07-16-2017, 03:15 PM   #3
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Good post.

Where "kill your darlings" does have some merit is when you have a section that you know isn't working. If it contains a 'darling' that may well be the place to start.

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Old 07-16-2017, 05:27 PM   #4
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Some authors need to kill at least have their darling adjectives and adverbs.
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Old 07-17-2017, 08:19 AM   #5
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arjaybe, I might have been inclined to agree that even the out of context quote should be understandable if it wasn't for the evidence of the 'net, where everyone is busy making up their own interpretations (including me ). I actually think that the "stop writing for your ego" explanation is probably the best match for what I think Faulkner meant (I assume he was paraphrasing Quiller-Couch). I think it probably qualifies as ironic: if he'd just said what he meant everything would be fine and everyone would understand, but because he was being clever with his words, misunderstanding abounds.

graham, it is probably true enough that if you've left something behind where it is noticeable you were trying to be clever then it should be given a stern looking at ... but I have my doubts (based on my own experience) that these happen any more often than all those places where I've just been ordinarily stupid.

cinisaoy, I generally consider adjectives and adverbs a separate topic, although I have seen instances where it appears the author was trying to be clever with their adverbs.


It may just be that I've seen one too many Amway presentations or something, but little meaningless or misleading phrases like "kill your darlings" offend me. (In case you hadn't noticed.)
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Old 07-17-2017, 10:56 AM   #6
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Gmw, I do agree the phrase is very misused.
If I had to interpret that statement, I would take it to mean "don't get to attached to your writing".
I had always heard it as "don't be afraid to kill your darlings".

*editing to add someone using the word ALL in almost any context offends me.
I do get cantankerous about that one.
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Old 07-17-2017, 09:02 PM   #7
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As I've mentioned on a previous thread, getting attached the words once they appear on the page is something I have struggled with - and still do. So the advice not to get too attached hits pretty close to home.

In that sense my current project has been an interesting, and often frustrating, experience. Great chunks have been completely discarded, and a big part of the start has been through about three rewrite iterations as the story changed character underneath me. But one disquieting result of this is that I find it even more difficult to decide whether what I have is good enough (if it's so easily changed, why not keep changing). So it's the "too" part in "don't get too attached" that causes the most difficulty - because, at some point, you have to get attached enough to be content with what you have.
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Old Today, 04:11 AM   #8
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I have to say that I never had too many troubles with killing my darlings and feeling the very disgusting feeling it gave me. And yet, I always did it anyway and quite sponteaneously.

I mean, that if you have a sincere urge to became a BETTER writer, you cut your works a lot.
Because in EVERY work there are are ALWAYS pages that are better than the others, thus cutting the worst pages (in order to raise overall quality) is a common process for any result-driven writer. And I am talking about result driven writers on purpose.

We all write for different reasons.
Some write because they want to be successfull (and quality - as we all know - MIGHT HELP, but does not GIVE you success), some write because they have fun while writing and don't care about getting any better (for they usually already consider themselves good writers), some others write to become better writers in the long TERM.

I always wished to become a good writer.
After 25 years of writing (12 novels, countless tales), I still want to become a better writer than the one I currently am.

So, when you are cutting down your works while reasoning in pure terms of final results, leaving everything out but the 'best quality parts' of the final read... You know... It feels nasty, guys. But then you see how the shorter version is better... Thus you do it. You leave the complete opera in your PC and treat the cut version as the final draft. And by doing this, the novel gets REALLY better. Stephen King once said that cutting is the Viagra of writing, and I agree 100%, to the point that I think that any bad novel (and by bad, I mean very bad) might be a very good short tale just by cutting away the most part of it.

And yet - during the exact moment while you are doing it - cutting feels soooo nasty.
You do really feel like you are killing your own pets.

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Old Today, 05:31 AM   #9
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Curious post, Wallace. I can't say that I've ever had cutting feel "nasty" - maybe that's why I can't relate to the "darlings" description. Yes, I do get attached to some of my writing - probably more than I should - but cutting would not be a problem if I could easily identify that they were causing problems. Sometimes it is obvious, you can feel yourself dropping off during the 100th time reading through, but that still leaves you trying to work out how much has to go.

And, to me, that's really the point. I have no disagreement that cutting often helps, but it doesn't always help. It's a fallacy to suggest that shorter is always better. I watched some shorts on you-tube showing Lord of the Rings (and various other stories) cut down to 30 seconds or something (can't remember the details). It was cute, but it missed the point. The very best books are those in which the reader enjoys the ride - and, so long as the reader is enjoying the ride, length isn't really an issue. Like everything else in life, it's a matter of getting the balance right, and that's more art than science.

But you are correct, different writers are in it for different reasons. ... And I think it's important to distinguish between two distinct phases: there is the writing itself. You can do this for fun and self-entertainment and it need not go further. And then there is publication, which (for me, anyway) is work. The two get linked only after you've been through the publication process (and treated it seriously, not as a simple upload). Only then do you (or me, anyway) realise how much difference that second phase has made to the result - and it's this, more than anything else, which has pushed me to try and do better.

Oh, and I definitely agree that most bad novels would be improved by cutting. When something is bad, shorter is always better. This in and of itself tells you something about the nature of cutting material from your own work.
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