Kill your darlings.
You’ve heard it before, I’m sure. It’s that phrase we writers often try to ignore. Often think that it’s one geared toward other writers, those other creative types that don’t know what they’re doing. Certainly I will never have to kill my darlings, right? Right?
Sad to say, yes you will. And if you don’t, your writing may suffer for it.
The Micro Level — Sentences & Paragraphs
Kill your darlings can mean both the big and the small of your manuscript. Sometimes it’s as simple as a single sentence, one that you feel is brilliant and perfect and will never be removed. You might go through ten drafts, always making sure that beautiful sentence stays in chapter seven, even though most of chapter seven has changed and now the sentence doesn’t make any sense.
It doesn’t matter, the sentence is staying, you say.
This is an example of why it’s important to kill your darlings at the micro level. Yes, that sentence might be amazing. Yes, it might astound a few of your readers. But if the sentence shouldn’t be there any longer for whatever reason, then, yes, it needs to go! Even if it’s the best sentence of the chapter, or heck, the entire book!
“Omit needless words,” Stephen King rightfully said, and if the sentence, or paragraph the sentence is in, can go, then it needs to go!
The Macro Level — Chapters
Kill your darlings isn’t just for the occasional sentence though. It can be geared toward much bigger elements of your manuscript, and in just the past two years I’ve seen it all.
Let’s go with a super big one next. This one might sting; it certainly did for me. You might have to not only cut that precious sentence; you might have to cut that precious chapter you love so much, too.
Even worse, you might have to cut a whole bunch of chapters.
Two years ago I wrote the first draft of my MFA thesis novel, a young adult thriller I’d been thinking about for years. I thought the first draft went really well. I sent it to my MFA adviser and waited for her to tell me just how brilliant I am, how amazing the story was, but then during our meeting about the first draft, I heard something that almost made me faint.
“The second act doesn’t work,” she told me.
The middle of the book set at the protagonist’s home, about nine chapters in all, had major problems. I loved the series of scenes I had come up with, but in the scope of the book, it ultimately made more sense to go from the party to the woods, not the party to the house to the woods.
I managed to save about 2,000 words. A little bit of a scene I moved to a moment in the woods later. But the rest of that section, which amounted to almost 30,000 words (!), I cut from the manuscript, never to be seen again.
And I then spent the next two months re-building that second act from scratch.
Two years later I still think about those lost chapters. There was some great writing in those scenes, a few heart-stopping moments that would have shocked and pleased a lot of readers, I think.
But at the end of the day, that section didn’t belong in the book, and all these months later, as I soon set out to begin the tenth draft of my MFA thesis, the book is SO MUCH better without that section at the house.
It needed to go. And so I’m happy I learned earlier in the revising process what I had to do.
How much worse would it have been if a year later, on draft seven or eight, after I’d polished and revised so much, that now I had to cut 80 or more pages! That would have been terrible. I killed my darlings earlier, and a better book has come from it.
The Macro Level — Characters
So yes, sometimes you have to kill your darling sentences, and sometimes you have to kill some darling paragraphs, and pages, and sometimes even chapters, lots of chapters.
But you know what hurts the most? What’s so painful I actually wrote a long short story about it? When kill your darlings refers to killing off one or more of your characters.
This doesn’t mean literally killing the characters in the narrative of your manuscript. No, this means removing them from your manuscript as if they never existed. Characters who played a major role in a previous draft, now gone in the next draft, never to be seen again.
I’ve been working on a new middle grade horror novel since December. In the first two drafts, there were two male supporting characters that were sprinkled throughout the narrative and then played huge parts in the third act, especially in the hair-raising finale.
I’m in the beginning stages of a heavy third revision, one where I’m changing a lot of plot elements and giving the characters clearer motivations. In thinking deeply about how this book can be its absolute best, I came to the conclusion this week that those two male characters need to go.
So in about a month’s time, when I have that third draft completed, two characters who had plenty of scenes and long stretches of dialogue in drafts one and two are now gone. Erased from the page. No reader of this eventual book will ever know they were there.
And even though I know removing them will make for a better book, it’s hard. It’s really, really hard to give life to two people on the page, only to rip them out of the manuscript forever. It’s painful every single time.
That’s why they call it kill your darlings. You the writer might find parts of your novel to be precious, anything from a sentence to chapters and characters.
But no matter how far along you are in the process, you need to do what’s best for the story. You need to think about what you set out to do in the first place, and try to accomplish that through your revision process however necessary. Even if you have to add and delete big sections of the book. Even if you have to cut a character or two, or three.
Gulp — even if you have to start the novel from scratch!
Kill your darlings now, and your manuscript will soar later. Kill your darlings now, and your writing will only get better.
Learn to kill your darlings, and you will be that much closer to your publishing dreams.