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Thread: Kill your darlings

  1. #1
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    Kill your darlings

    We've had any number of threads here concerning bad, hackneyed, meaningless bits of common advice doled out to writers, often by other very successful writers. An entire book could probably be compiled of comments concerning "Show, don't tell," as just one example.

    But I'm going to nominate this oft-repeated nugget as one of the dumbest pieces of writer's advice I've ever seen. And, yes, I know that the immortal Stephen King has uttered it, among many others.

    I teach composition to intro-level university students. Inevitably, that involves critiquing their writing, and making various comments about grammar, and suggestions for ways of making what they are trying to express more concise, more effective, etc.

    But I also make comments about what is done well in their writing, and I try very hard to get them to recognize both the good stuff and the stuff that could stand more work. You need to be able to recognize when you really nail something in a phrase or a sentence, when you get it just the way it needs to be.

    "Kill your darlings" is idiotic advice, if your "darling" is exactly what needs to be there, in that place, at that moment in the story. A writer needs to be able to make that judgment, to recognize that "darling," fully as much as being able to recognize the crap that needs to be rewritten, reworked, or even just thrown away.

    I hereby declare my intolerance for that hackneyed phrase, and propose that it be banished forthwith from any set of pithy utterances intended to give writer's advice on improving their writing.

    caw
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  2. #2
    Inappropriately math-oriented. slhuang's Avatar
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    Yup. Seconded.

    I'm reminded of this delightful piece by Ursula Vernon:
    http://www.redwombatstudio.com/blog/...your-darlings/

    There's certainly merit to the idea that one should not cling to one's pet bits at the expense of the manuscript. But "do not cling to your favorite scenes or turns of phrase if excising them is what you need to improve the piece as a whole" feels far more obvious and far less pithy, and people like a good sound bite.

  3. #3
    Writing my way off the B Ark Becky Black's Avatar
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    I agree that given just as "kill your darlings" it's silly. It makes people think that if they particularly love a bit of writing then they must delete it - which is daft. I interpret it as meaning that no matter how much you like a bit of description, or dialogue or whatever, if it doesn't fit where you are trying to put it, it has to go.

    A darling I killed once was a bit of dialogue I loved, thought was witty, was a fun bit of military speak. But it didn't fit. It didn't fit the character (he just wasn't that funny) and it didn't fit the tone of the scene. It didn't fit the situation at that point in the story. No matter how much I liked it, the story had the casting vote. The story always wins. It had to go.

    But if you love a bit of writing because it fits and works perfectly, then of course you don't cut it just because you love it. If anything you might cut other things that weaken the impact of that especially good bit.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Becky Black View Post
    I agree that given just as "kill your darlings" it's silly. It makes people think that if they particularly love a bit of writing then they must delete it - which is daft. I interpret it as meaning that no matter how much you like a bit of description, or dialogue or whatever, if it doesn't fit where you are trying to put it, it has to go.

    A darling I killed once was a bit of dialogue I loved, thought was witty, was a fun bit of military speak. But it didn't fit. It didn't fit the character (he just wasn't that funny) and it didn't fit the tone of the scene. It didn't fit the situation at that point in the story. No matter how much I liked it, the story had the casting vote. The story always wins. It had to go.

    But if you love a bit of writing because it fits and works perfectly, then of course you don't cut it just because you love it. If anything you might cut other things that weaken the impact of that especially good bit.
    Pretty much sums it up for me. Sometimes it's hard to part with a scene and occasionally a background character that's been introduced. Really difficult because in and of itself the scene or character is ultra-cool. But it has no real relation to the story or it contradicts it in some way: something the protag just wouldn't be involved in, etc. So it's gotta go. The, "darling has gotta be killed."

  5. #5
    Formerly Phantom of Krankor. Torgo's Avatar
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    There's often a way to recycle things that you like but don't fit, I find.

  6. #6
    Ooo! Shiny new cover! Absolute Sage Cathy C's Avatar
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    I love detailed description, including describing musing by the characters on the pattern in the wallpaper (which could literally go on for pages.) But the editor of my first book was correct that it slows down the scene too much---for my genre and style of writing, which is fast-paced and action-packed. Ultimitely, I had to choose which "darling" to keep, the action or the description of wallpaper. It was a hard choice, because I wanted readers to love both and be able to pull away from one to appreciate the other. But they just couldn't. I actually know that, because I tried an experiment with several devoted fans of that same series by asking them to read the original manuscript of the first book and ask which they liked better. Without fail, they said they would have put down the book and never picked up another if I hadn't killed that particular darling of mine.

    Now, I could have chosen to write more literary style of books where my beautiful description could stand and be appreciated, but paranormal thrillers is where my head lies, so I have to write for reader desires, as much as it dovetails with my style. Because I write for the readers' enjoyment, not for my own needs.

    So, I agree and disagree with the idiom. Mostly, it's a case of understanding what it means to an individual author, their style and their chosen genre . . . and it's an experiential thing that I don't know that can be taught in abstract to another person.
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  7. #7
    Writing my way off the B Ark Becky Black's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Torgo View Post
    There's often a way to recycle things that you like but don't fit, I find.
    Yes, I've got a note of that bit I cut. One day it might find a home.
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  8. #8
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    I think if it doesn't inform character (main or a vital bit of color - as far as narrative- for supporting) or story it has to go.
    Last edited by Maze Runner; 04-10-2014 at 04:07 PM. Reason: (parenthetical)

  9. #9
    part of the human equation sheadakota's Avatar
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    actually that was the best bit of advice i ever got. BUT I tend to write very wordy and I digress- A LOT- so for me it is very good advice- YMMV-

    Also I don't edit as i write I just write and my first draft is a total word vomit- so I always need to kill 'em.

    If you write cleaner then, yeah I can see where you're coming from Blac.
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  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW buzhidao's Avatar
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    I've always interpreted that as not meaning "kill everything that seems good to you" but "don't get attached to [x], because it might not serve your purpose." Rather like "if you should meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." [Which is another saying that makes little sense without context and structure around it, and the feeding of interpretation into it ]

    Advice taken in neat little quotes without anything conditional, contextual, or qualifying within it is never advisable to take whole.
    Last edited by buzhidao; 04-10-2014 at 06:08 PM.

  11. #11
    Caution: (tries to) Walk on Water buirechain's Avatar
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    Hmm, I'm going to have to defend it too, really along lines already given. Just before I saw this thread I passed it along in another thread. I've always understood that as "(Be willing to) kill your darlings."

    And now I just hope that my point as I made it in that thread had enough context.

  12. #12
    DenturePunk writer bearilou's Avatar
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    That's a problem with taking advice too literally. :/

    And with soundbite advice.
    Quote Originally Posted by Phaeal View Post
    The first draft is a huge pile of clay that you've laboriously heaped on your table, patting it into a rough shape as you go along. From the second draft onward, you'll cut away chunks, add bits, pat and punch and pinch, until you finally have a gorgeous figure of, oh, Marcus Aurelius. Or a duck. But a damn fine duck.
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  13. #13
    practical experience, FTW Renee J's Avatar
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    When I first heard this advice, I thought it meant kill off your favorite character. I saw it in a list of Stephen King quotes, so I think that's why I got confused.

  14. #14
    Coffee Coffee Work Coffee AW Moderator amergina's Avatar
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    It's really more about knowing when to edit. Don't hold on to things *just* because you love them if they do not serve the story.

    Much like "show don't tell" doesn't mean that you need to describe every detail of a character getting up in the morning on day 1 of your book.
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  15. #15
    MacAllister's Official Minion & Greeter AW Moderator Ari Meermans's Avatar
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    As so often happens with often repeated phrases, context can get lost. When Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said, "Murder your darlings," he was referring to the mistaken belief that excessively ornamented (purple) prose is an element of personal style. He was a proponent of clear, concise writing; and his contention was that this affected manner of writing was not style at all. Always use the best phrasing to convey your meaning, but don't get so caught up in using a thesaurus that your prose devolves into affectation.
    Last edited by Ari Meermans; 04-10-2014 at 09:07 PM.
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  16. #16
    empty-nester! shadowwalker's Avatar
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    I always consider the "short-cut phrasing" as a reminder of the whole piece of advice. So no, I don't have a problem with "Kill your darlings" or "Show don't tell" or any other phrases like that. I also remember that it's advice.
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  17. #17
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    I believe it's more of a guideline rather than a rule. It would help amateur writers to take it as a rule, disciplining themselves not to be overly ornate. And as the writer grows, he is apt to bend that rule and then brake the rule, turning it into a mere guideline, a signpost that was once a towering obelisk.

    Also, Stephen King wasn't the first who said "Kill Your Darlings". I just learned this myself today since I believed it was Faulkner who said it first.
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  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    We've had any number of threads here concerning bad, hackneyed, meaningless bits of common advice doled out to writers, often by other very successful writers. An entire book could probably be compiled of comments concerning "Show, don't tell," as just one example.

    But I'm going to nominate this oft-repeated nugget as one of the dumbest pieces of writer's advice I've ever seen. And, yes, I know that the immortal Stephen King has uttered it, among many others.

    I teach composition to intro-level university students. Inevitably, that involves critiquing their writing, and making various comments about grammar, and suggestions for ways of making what they are trying to express more concise, more effective, etc.

    But I also make comments about what is done well in their writing, and I try very hard to get them to recognize both the good stuff and the stuff that could stand more work. You need to be able to recognize when you really nail something in a phrase or a sentence, when you get it just the way it needs to be.

    "Kill your darlings" is idiotic advice, if your "darling" is exactly what needs to be there, in that place, at that moment in the story. A writer needs to be able to make that judgment, to recognize that "darling," fully as much as being able to recognize the crap that needs to be rewritten, reworked, or even just thrown away.

    I hereby declare my intolerance for that hackneyed phrase, and propose that it be banished forthwith from any set of pithy utterances intended to give writer's advice on improving their writing.

    caw

    Do you really think "show, don't tell" falls in this category? Wow. It's absolutely crucial and wonderful advice, and unless you can find a better way of stating it, it needs to be left alone.

    "Kill your darlings" has nothing to do with a phrase that's exactly what needs to be there, in that place, at that moment in the story. You know that. It's a phrase you love that serves no purpose other than being pretty.

    Of course a writer needs to be able to make the judgment call, and that's exactly what this phrase helps a writer to do.

    And, again, unless you can find a better way of phrasing it, then changing it would be silly.

  19. #19
    Formerly Phantom of Krankor. Torgo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jamesaritchie View Post
    Do you really think "show, don't tell" falls in this category? Wow. It's absolutely crucial and wonderful advice, and unless you can find a better way of stating it, it needs to be left alone.
    My problem with 'show, don't tell' is that it's often taken to mean 'never, never, never tell'. So that you get manuscripts in which every facial expression and gesture is painstakingly delineated, in the manner of an audio-described movie, because the writer is too afraid to say "Mrs Briggs was delighted to see them" or the like. Sometimes telling is the right call, and I find the usual formulation of the advice a bit too snappy and absolute.

  20. #20
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    No matter how many zillions of copies of his zilions of books have been sold, Stephen King is absolutely the last person in any position to tell anyone to "kill your darlings".

    Stevie boy gets up to didoes and when in doubt straps on those little darlings every smucking time he turns around.

    One of his most annoying darlings is his outrageous crudity thing that he does: he gets enamoured of some paragraph in which the contents of some character's head is suddenly a bit dirtier or coarser, and then it's like a sore tooth that he can't keep his tongue out of, he goes BACK to those bits and elaborates on them getting ever raunchier. Like some character watching another person wipe their nose with the back of their hand while eating and wondering if some of the snot got on the food. Then he'll have his character think back on that later and wonder if the person regularly wiped snot into their food to add a bit of salt flavoring to it. And then later thinking the person is probably active plucking out gooey buggers to garnish their food. And so on, ad nauseum, always returning to the SAME thing and elaborating on it.


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  21. #21
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    Yep. Let's kill THIS darling quote.

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  22. #22
    Formerly Phantom of Krankor. Torgo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AHunter3 View Post
    No matter how many zillions of copies of his zilions of books have been sold, Stephen King is absolutely the last person in any position to tell anyone to "kill your darlings".

    Stevie boy gets up to didoes and when in doubt straps on those little darlings every smucking time he turns around.

    One of his most annoying darlings is his outrageous crudity thing that he does:
    I don't know if this is quite the same thing we are talking about, and in any case I'd prefer we didn't start knocking individual writers, however successful?

  23. #23
    The grad students did it NeuroFizz's Avatar
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    The advice depends on one's personal definition or personal understanding of what constitutes a "darling." To me, it is writing that serves the writer instead of serving the story. New writers tend to be heavy on these darlings in that they can tend to be overly "literary" and descriptive to the point the writer is enthralled with the clever or rhythmic wording more than in how that wording serves the pace, flow, continuity, and forward movement of the scene or story. If the writing is there to make the writer look cool or "writerly," rather than to best serve the story, then it is a darling (because this is the kind of writing to which a new or developing writer* may be overly attached because of its perceived artistic or intellectual value). In my opinion, those darlings must NOT be killed--they must be annihilated, vaporized, or otherwise banished from one's writing toolbox.

    In my mind, "darling" implies an emotional attachment to the writing, in particular an attachment that overrides the importance of that writing's primary service to the story. Instead, its primary service is to the writer's ego.

    *this can be an affliction of experienced writers as well.


    Note added in edit: The above is why I sometimes cringe at posts in the "favorite lines you've written" type of threads.
    Last edited by NeuroFizz; 04-11-2014 at 01:10 AM.
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  24. #24
    DenturePunk writer bearilou's Avatar
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    And because of this propensity for these soundbite quotes to be taken out of context or simply not having any context is why I would like to see a move away from being pithy and witty and tossing out these cute little things that mean very little unless expanded on and to see advice given on a more useful level.

    I know that after a while people get tired of repeating themselves and so it's tempting to fall back on these kinds of things, but then we end up with someone new coming in, hearing it, and with no context, assuming it's meant literally instead of with a bit of common sense.
    Quote Originally Posted by Phaeal View Post
    The first draft is a huge pile of clay that you've laboriously heaped on your table, patting it into a rough shape as you go along. From the second draft onward, you'll cut away chunks, add bits, pat and punch and pinch, until you finally have a gorgeous figure of, oh, Marcus Aurelius. Or a duck. But a damn fine duck.
    Quote Originally Posted by KTC View Post
    1) Write like your face is on fire.


  25. #25
    All about that action, boss. ElaineA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
    I hereby declare my intolerance for that hackneyed phrase, and propose that it be banished forthwith from any set of pithy utterances intended to give writer's advice on improving their writing.

    caw
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