Kill your darlings (and make sure they stay dead)

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We all know variations of the “kill your darlings” quote, but there’s a companion to the quote I see almost as frequently. It can be boiled down to…

“Save your darlings for later. You never know when you might find a place for them.”

This seems like a hoarder’s mentality to me, an approach toward writing that assumes that everything you’ve ever written has a place somewhere. I believe this is objectively false.

There’s a popular notion that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at something. A writing variation that’s a favorite of mine converts that to “write as much as you are tall.” For me that would be a stack of paper 6’4″ tall. Considering that a ream of 500 sheets is about 2 inches and the standard manuscript page is 250 words, I need to write about 4.75 million words before I’m any good. Hopefully, that number is a bit absurd, but I think we can agree that getting good at writing takes time, practice, and well … writing.

I think a lot of ideas are like flowers. From the moment we cut them they have a set amount of freshness before they start to wither, die, and grow mold. I’m not saying that ideas can’t be timeless, but I think most of the things we write have a shelf life. If they make it to the end of a novel drafting process, then there’s a good chance they’ll survive for a long time. But if they’ve been cut out of a book, and stuffed in a drawer for later use, they may never find a place to fit in.

And that’s okay.

I wonder if this advice, to “save things for later,” is given to novice writers as a way to make cutting things out easier. It assumes something that I just don’t think is true for the passionate writer:

“You might run out of ideas.”

I’m more worried that I won’t have time to write all the books I want to write than I am about not knowing what to write next. In fact I’m pretty certain that no matter how many books I finish in a lifetime (I’m shooting for 30-40), I will always wish I had written more. At the very least, it makes sense that I would want to write books using some of my best ideas, and these are usually fundamentally different things than the “darling” moments in books that just make me smile.

What I’m writing now is a product of my life experiences and the writing I’ve done before. Because I’m changing as a writer, it can be hard to look back at something I’ve written ten years ago, five years ago, or even three years ago. The piece you’ve cut out is a time capsule of who you were as a writer when you wrote it. If you’re growing as an author, with time this fragment will seem less and less like your writing.

Share a drink or a last meal with these little bits of personal whimsy, then put them before the executioner’s ax. Revision can be ruthless, and it should be. If a moment doesn’t add to characterization, useful description, or moving the plot forward, then it probably needs to go. Being able to tell what is good and what is not is part of being a better writer, and that means throwing some things out completely.

But I do save every draft, every little thought, in notebooks and drawers for years (as do most authors). Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little about why, and how ideas can still be useful.

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2 Comments

Filed under Writing

2 responses to “Kill your darlings (and make sure they stay dead)

  1. killing your darlings is so hard but totally worth it

  2. I’ve had a few situations where I was able to insert discarded ideas/drafts for one story into another one to make it work. Maybe that speaks to the formulaic nature of my stories, but I thought it was successful. So, I say keep them around in suspended animation in case you need to revivify them later.

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