Killing Your Darlings

I was deep in the throes of outlining my novel when I hit a bit of a wall. And I don’t just mean a little wall. I mean a big wall. The kind of wall that made me want to give up on the whole novel and start again from scratch. Try as I might, I just couldn’t come up with a way to end my story that made any sense and drew the main conflict to a satisfying conclusion. Then I remembered one of my golden rules:

Quitting is not an option.

So after a few painful days of working hard but accomplishing very little, I decided to make a pretty fundamental change in my plot. I had originally planned to kill a particular character in exchange for the life of another. This was to happen right at the end of part two of my novel, to act as a catalyst for everything that happened in part three. I’ve since changed it however, so now that character survives the whole novel and the other character dies instead, under altogether less unusual circumstances.

Kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart.

Stephen King

I really didn’t want to make this change. I was so proud of the original death I had written. It was shocking (yet foreshadowed), heartrending and gave my antagonist that final push he needed to become utterly consumed by evil. Alas, it also completely undermined my protagonist’s goal, essentially resolving her main conflict prematurely and leaving her with sod all to do.

I tried everything to keep that original death scene but I just couldn’t. That beautiful, surprising, frankly marvellous chapter was undermining everything else. It had to go.

You’ll often hear authors quoting William Faulkner or Stephen King urging us to ‘kill our darlings,’ and this is exactly what they mean. A clever turn of phrase, a heartrending scene or even a beautifully crafted but ultimately superfluous character can undermine an entire novel. It doesn’t matter how good it is. It doesn’t matter how in love with it you are. It has to go, no matter how much it hurts. Here’s a few things to remember if you’re finding it hard to let go:

You’re Making a Cake, Not a Salad

Look at a salad and what will you see? Lots of vegetables, which you can easily distinguish between and pick out. If you don’t fancy the tomatoes, you can just pick them out, because a salad is really just a collection of vegetables sitting next to each other. But you can’t get eggs and milk out of a cake. It has ceased to be a collection of discrete ingredients and has become a single entity.

So too, a story is not a collection of discrete ideas, characters, story beats, sentences and chapters. It is one whole creation, so try to focus on the big picture whenever you write and create a beautiful story, rather than a collection of beautiful phrases.

Remember, pork crackling is delicious but it still doesn’t belong in a Victoria Sponge.

You Can Always Recycle

It’s not just paper and plastic that can be recycled. Ideas can also be recycled too. If you really do believe that your darling is too beautiful to die (and you should run that past a dispassionate third party just to be sure) despite the fact it’s ruining your entire story, save it somewhere separate to be used again as needed. You may find you can use it (or at least, draw inspiration from it) in future projects. That useless sidekick could perhaps get a story of her own. That clever bit of wordplay could be placed somewhere else.

Even if it can’t be reused, at least your stroke of ‘genius’ won’t perish forever.

Your Darling Probably Isn’t as Good as You Think

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this but it’s true. In my experience, the things I’ve created which have jazzed me the most have often left my audiences the most underwhelmed (and the reverse is often true as well). Try to look at your darling dispassionately and ask yourself if it really, truly is too beautiful to die.

Then kill it anyway. Kill it now before it kills your story.

Oh and don’t forget: you created genius once before. You can do it again.

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Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

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