Darlings are Damn Hard to Kill

Image courtesy of Henry Söderlund via Flickr
Image courtesy of Henry Söderlund via Flickr

As a writer, I know how important it is to let go of those pretty words that no longer serve my story. They may have helped me get through the muddy middle of my first draft or even find a way to begin, but when it’s time to revise, the death blows need to fall. Sometimes excising these beautiful ones can be harder than you think.

I’ve heard the phrase “Kill your darlings” more than once when at conferences and workshops. One editor even said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If you must keep them, print them out and tuck them safely under your pillow, but get them out of your manuscript.” (I really wish I could remember who said that, because I think that’s just brilliant.)

Point made. They don’t belong in your story.

Usually I don’t have a problem with the slash and burn. The delete button and I are well acquainted. However, during my latest revision I came across a major blind spot that caused quite an upheaval in my first chapter. While I thought I had done my usual slashing without mercy, leaving a wake of dead darlings bathed in red ink, once I presented the freshly cleaned chapter to my critique group, I received a surprise. The comments?

“This doesn’t work.”

“This flashback scene is confusing.”

Why was there a flashback scene in the first chapter, you may ask?

Ugh.

I know, I know. Total amateur move. Bad writer.

So what happened?

I changed my opening line. And then…I couldn’t let go of the old one. In fact, I worked so hard to keep it, this little darling of mine, that there was no rule I wouldn’t break. I went so far out of my way to write badly, knowing I was writing badly and still unable to stop, just to force the line in and to make it fit. The gymnastic maneuverings it took to twist the story broke the laws of physics and the rules of writing. Even as I was writing the horrible flashback scene, which was the only way I could work it into the story, I knew it was crap, but I still couldn’t quit.

Why?

Maybe because I thought it was humorous, a running gag I could use through the whole story. Maybe I thought I couldn’t write something better. I don’t know, exactly. Deep down I did know that this bit of writing I was trying so desperately to save didn’t move the story along and it didn’t really add to the main character – something that should have brought on an immediate death sentence.

In the end, I needed my CPs to help me euthanize this one. They took one look at the mess and said unanimously:

“This doesn’t work.”

Have I mentioned only a few dozen times how much I love my critique group? They are always so good for me. I can hide nothing from them. Once they pointed it out, I just had to laugh at the ridiculousness. Of course it didn’t work. I could see it, then.

But it was hard to say good bye. Maybe because I didn’t always think it was so bad. That darling helped me out of a bind, once upon a time, when I was struggling for a beginning hook. It may not have been the best opening, but it did help me stop worrying about the perfect beginning and move on to write the story while I had that placeholder. I knew the time would come when I’d have to change it. But when the time came, I thought I still needed it.

Now I know I can let it go. I can write something better. I am finally ready to kill this darling.

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4 thoughts on “Darlings are Damn Hard to Kill

  1. I loved this little insight into the writing process — not being a writer, I had no idea flashbacks aren’t allowed so early! Good luck with your darling killing, hah!

    1. Thanks, Leah. Flashbacks are definitely not encouraged in the first chapter, especially if you butcher it like I did. I think you have to go forward in the story before you can go back.

  2. Valerie, this is GREAT. I’m in the midst of a major overhaul of an MG, and am still struggling to accept that yes, I made the right choice in re-casting an important moment into a completely DIFFERENT setting, one which required that I throw out the original chapter–which I really loved. It was one of my favorites from the first draft. Thanks for sharing your angst!

    1. You so welcome, Marianne. And thanks for sharing your own angsty story. Isn’t that the hardest bit? Wondering if you’re making the right decision with that brutal cut? Hopefully your story is better for that new direction.

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