I’d always thought the advice to ‘kill your darlings’ related to unnecessary fluff in a manuscript. Some say adverbs should never see the light of day, others want to stab into oblivion every second and subsequent adjective. It is all very violent. The saying comes from an Edwardian guy (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch) who advocated that when we feel we want to write ‘exceptionally fine writing’ we should kill it off – he actually used the word ‘murder’ – before subjecting anyone to it.
My take is that the saying has morphed into one of those catch-all cliched advice given to writers, possibly only slightly less popular than ‘write what you know’. I’ve always scoffed at the idea that I would ‘kill my darlings’ although I have written and abandoned my darlings throughout my life. I think of them trailing behind me through time, lonely and unloved. But they were in service of the craft. I could not write the words I write now without having written all that came before. The spectre of all those darlings still exist in what I write today.
Still, when I think ‘kill my darlings’ I think of deleting. No one likes deleting. But deleting can be freeing.
Here’s what happened:
When I went away to write for a week I got rid of around 10,000 words from my manuscript. These weren’t single, fix-upper words but whole scenes and slabs of text that I knew needed to be removed. Most were part of a previous draft when I was writing in a different style with totally different relationships between my characters. They were, I knew, necessary to have written but I loved that Scrivener’s little word count bar had turned green (meaning I was getting close to my overall goal) and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
But I did. I read some of it and it was awful and then it was easy to cut-and-paste all those bits out into my ‘deleted scenes’ folder. Yay! And, although my word count bar was now yellow again, I felt lighter and more in control.
The only problem was that I had a niggling feeling that all that deleting didn’t actually do anything for my story. They were redundant words anyway. I’d already started ignoring them on any read throughs I did. And I hadn’t solved a key problem with my story.
Thinking about solutions
There were two ways to solve this. One: just write the whole thing in third person and stop trying to be fancy and see if it worked. The problem with this solution was that it required continuing to write something I wasn’t sure was working and I had a nagging voice in the back of my head reminding me of this. That voice was getting in the way of any actual writing being done.
Two: take the ‘less is more’ route. You know, the one that always makes more sense in every aspect of life. It is hard to let go. It *was* hard to let go. But when I asked myself what story I wanted to tell I realised less IS more. And I moved another 50,000 words out, my word count bar went red and then took the dog for a walk.
Letting things settle
As my partner and I walked though the bush near home, he chatted about what happened at Parkrun this morning and I felt slightly lightheaded. But I realised I also felt a little knot of excitement in the pit of my stomach. My story seemed more lean and clean now. Like a runner, it seemed to be built to do one thing but to do it well.
Now, instead of three voices, wanting three things, telling three stories I have one voice, wanting one thing, telling one story. And it feels right. Oh god, I hope it continues to feel right!
Plus, I have a chapter breakdown and I’m going to tackle a synopsis next. I have only 17,000 words left in the draft but it isn’t scary because those words tell the whole story and I know everything that happens and I just have to write it.