“Kill your darlings.” No, really, kill them dead.

A big part of my job involves helping writers develop ideas and then editing their work.   Good agents, Jane taught me a long time ago, send out material in its most polished, ready-for-prime-time form.  Even though an editor brings his/her own vision and expertise to the process of making a book ready for publication, it’s our job to get that editor to buy the thing in the first place.  So, a brilliant but bloated novel of ideas about the robot apocalypse (just a hypothetical, although you never know with Jim’s list), will probably get a long edit memo from us suggesting a lot of slashing and some burning.

Now, after a couple of decades of responses ranging from sobs to name calling, I’ve learned that telling authors to kill their darlings is always a loaded proposition.  Some will argue with you like defense lawyers at the O.J. trial, trying to convince you to recant and let them keep every superfluous line of dialogue, every unnecessary adjective, and every irritating dream sequence (a particular bugaboo of mine).  Some will accept your comments politely and then send back a manuscript with infinitesimal changes.  Some will send you six-page letters refuting everything you’ve suggested and insinuating that you belong in a less think-heavy profession.

Seldom (although not never) do we get a reaction similar to that of the author of this piece in the Times.  For every author who loves cutting and throwing out, there are thousands of hoarders.

Be honest, are you able to cut with gusto (or at least without facing a clinical depression) or do you have the impulse to argue with or rail against anyone who suggests it?


9 Responses to “Kill your darlings.” No, really, kill them dead.

  1. Always take your agents advice. Always. That’s why you pay them…

  2. Katie Newingham says:

    Working in a newsroom taught me to hold my work with tongs and never to grip it until it was ready to be published. For the most part, everyone working on a project wants it to succeed; Knowing this helped me learn to trust the editorial process.

    Had I not learned to accept this process, I wouldn’t have come this far. My first MS started in first person and with CP feedback, I changed the whole thing to third person limited. Then I got other feedback that led to whole scenes being cut and 10,000 words being added (twice). I think it’s had three different opening scenes and two endings.
    And the more nuance stuff came later: deleting adjectives and repetitions, replacing three words with one more precise, and ending scenes early to rev up pacing, etc…

    The hardest part of writing is editing for me, not because I’m not willing to make changes, but because I can argue myself in and out of how to solve each problem. That’s where CPs have really helped me – they’re kind of my referees.

  3. Bill McMillan says:

    This is timely information. I am looking for a L.A. and an editor. Perhaps someone can contact me to discuss my MS?

  4. jeffo says:

    If the end result is better than where it started, I’m fine with the darling murder. Sometimes it does take someone else to point it out, however.

  5. Hillsy says:

    Killing darlings is easy……

    …..it’s choosing which ones I find impossible

  6. Miriam says:

    Having said all that, I do want to remind everyone that in cutting (as with any editorial work you undertake at someone’s behest) you need to really trust the source of the critique. The edits need to feel right to you, even if it hurts to consider them, and the person giving you the suggested changes should be able to clearly and persuasively articulate why those changes will make the work better.

  7. Lynn says:

    Interesting post and article, Miriam. In my revisions I’ve taken out pages of what I thought was good writing, but afterwards realized all it did was slow down the manuscript. I see no problems with killing the darlings if it makes the story better. Where I would draw the line is when the story becomes something other than the story I want to tell.

  8. D. C. DaCosta says:

    Some great comments here.

    I have only objected to cuts if the reader suggesting them has not yet read enough of the work to realize that the episodes are not extraneous, but my carefully (perhaps even cleverly?) laid hints as to what will happen next or some background as to the character is reacting in a certain way.

    As for killing outright? NEVER. Recycle!!

    When I write I have two files open on the PC: the narrative, and a companion document called “Rejects”. Anything I cut gets stored there. Later, if it’s good, I move it into a new document and develop it into something else. In one case, I shoved the text into a new novel and let the event happen to a different character. In another, I realized that the 3,000 word episode neither advanced the action nor told us anything new about the hero. I was able to cut it down to about 350 words, and the original length (with a few small changes) became a stand-alone short story.

    • Lynn says:

      You’re right D.C., I don’t actually kill them either. I let them marinate until the right recipe comes along and then I mix and stir them into some new creation. (Okay, I’ll stop! That’s what living with a French chef does to me!)

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