Writing Secrets: Should “darlings” get a fair trial?
I don’t think I’m naturally ruthless. I find it hard to be tough on others, and still harder on myself. My tendency is to tell myself: “You don’t feel like exercise this afternoon? Well, there, there, you deserve a bit of a rest.”
The other day, I found an ally in James Scott Bell, who wrote of his horror of the axiom, “Murder your darlings”.
“Isn’t a darling at least owed a fair trial?”
The phrase was coined, apparently, in 1914, by English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote:
“ Style is not … extraneous ornament … 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.”
Scott finds Quiller-Couch’s inducement to commit darlingicide positively psychopathic, and feels Stephen King strikes the right balance, in On Writing. King says the whole idea behind “kill your darlings” is to make sure your style is “reasonably reader-friendly.”
That means: “Sometimes a darling stays, sometimes it goes, and sometimes you give it a skilful edit. It’s mostly a matter of ear, what it sounds like. It’s that thing called voice.”
It’s a difficult balance, though, because we can fall in love with bits of writing which should really go. They might not be bad in themselves. We might have found the perfect, lyrical metaphor. Only … we found three. There are just too many of them.
So, I’m afraid, there are times when we have to stop fooling ourselves and become ruthless.
The trouble is that it’s terrifying. What happens if you find yourself rummaging through your recycle bin for that beautiful paragraph you threw away in so cavalier a manner?
I get over this by tricking myself. I create a file called: “Extracts to use elsewhere.” I throw pretty paragraphs in it, descriptions, whole scenes.
I do sometimes find, elsewhere in the book, or in another writing project entirely, that I cast about for just such a pretty paragraph. (Now where did I put it?) For the most part, though, all those pretty paragraphs will spend their lives languishing in that file and no-one will ever look at them again.
It’s a good trick though.