We’ve all heard it. Murder your darlings. But what does it mean? Is it just another tip in the ever-growing list of misunderstood writing advice? Or is it the cornerstone of every successful writing project?
First the history lesson. It appears this advice originated from Arthur Quiller-Couch. He made this comment in 1914 and all the other sources have repeated it ever since.
News Flash: Writers borrow from other writers.
When Quiller-Couch urged everyone to do some killing, he was responding to late Victorian literature, which I happen to love, but you couldn’t call sparse or tightly constructed. So how do we take this century old adage and make it work for modern writers? In my view it comes down to asking yourself why you’re sending your prose off to the big sleep. There are times when you should reconsider total carnage and keep your darlings right where you put them.
Start by examining your motives for word genocide.
- Sharpen your axe for these three:
Word counts: If you had your heart set on inking a publishing deal with a 250,000 word novel, I’m afraid that boat has sailed. Find the dead wood and chop it out.
Basic craft issues: We all need to edit but if you have massive craft blunders it’s time for a shock and awe campaign. Pesky passives and those ugly to-be verbs deserve murder most foul.
Mismatched reader demographics: You may have written the most spectacular phrases in the world but if they cross some content boundaries you might need to clean house.
- Reflect on the value of word life for these two.
Negative beta reader feedback: Unless your beta reader is an agent or editor, beware! You need to listen to your readers and critique partners, but pause and consider the source. Perhaps you need to slice with the skill of a surgeon, and not attack it with a hack saw.
Tropes and clichés: Some tropes are just awful, but others are necessary evils. The same with clichés, you don’t want a book full of either one. Avoid full-scale massacre and review them case by case.
- Stop the senseless slaughter on this one.
Meandering plotline: It the plot wanders, getting in there with a machete isn’t going to solve the problem. Plot flaws tend to run the full length of the book. Unless you plan to scrap the project, stop the random cutting and find the real criminal.
Once you’ve set your mind on an assassination, here are a few things to make the hit run smoothly.
Start small: Take on just a chapter or two at a time. Stop when you hit that limit. Murdering is addictive, and writers can go crazy and kill everything in sight.
Open a morgue: Use a new file folder and lovingly plant your dead darlings in it. Make sure you keep enough of the connecting framework so you can resuscitate them.
Attend a wake: Now eat some food. Have a good cry. Laugh with a loved one and get some rest. Murder is emotionally draining work. Try to sit with your guilt for at least a day or two, this helps put the experience in perspective. Take all the time you need to grieve.
Take stock: When you’re ready reread with fresh eyes. Is the new chapter more or less powerful? If it’s less powerful you may need to review how you’re choosing your victims. I recommended you look around the morgue for clues, you may see a pattern. If it’s more powerful, congratulations! You have successfully rid the world of meaningless prose. Readers everywhere will thank you.