Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Killing Your Darlings - it may not be what you think

I don't know of any successful writer who has been more consistently taken as a role model by tyros than Stephen King. And that's not surprising given the sound practical advice he gives in his valuable book, On Writing. It is one I frequently recommend, despite the fact that I find the autobiographical part of it deeply irritating. But it's worth slogging through the personal disclosures of someone you don't know to get to the good stuff. If you're not OCD-inclined, you can even skip straight to it. 

A great role model for novice writers - but make sure you're emulating the right behaviours.
Personally, I think that if you're going to adopt Mr King as a role model, and you could do a lot worse, skipping the beginning is the better way. There has been a lot about his personal journey that shouldn't be emulated. Drinking, for example. I don't care what stupid rationalisations you come up with, working while drunk is not a good idea. Even with that first glass, your edge is blunted, your critical faculties impaired and your judgement skewed in the direction of optimism. Save the vodka martinis for when you've got your wordcount and knocked off for the day. Getting both your legs broken is another one to avoid. Keeping Maine Coon cats, while harmless, isn't going to help your writing in any material way. St Francis de Sales talks about this at some length in Introduction to the Devout Life. Having a role model can be great, but before you emulate aspects of your model's behaviour, you need to be sure that they are relevant to the work.

So, let's focus on the craft part of King's book. It's stuffed full of good, even great, advice. If you follow Mr King's blueprint, the only variable will be your talent. And luck, of course, once the book is finished. You can't avoid that.

Most people know this, or seem to have a dim grasp of it, at least, and King has achieved almost a demi-god status in writers' groups. I have lost count of the times I've seen him quoted to gain a definitive win to a dispute. It's nonsense of course - an appeal to authority, however great, is never a valid argument- but people who haven't mastered the English language can hardly be expected to have mastered the art of logic. 

Because of the extreme veneration in which the indie community tends to hold Mr King, a number of his sayings have become aphorisms with the status of ancient proverbs. One of these is 'kill your darlings'.

Many people have taken this expression to mean that you need to kill off your protagonist, or your most sympathetic character, or even, God forbid, the dog. I have often seen George Martin's work cited in support of this dark vision of a stage littered with corpses. This is NOT what 'kill your darlings' means. Your characters are not supposed to be your 'darlings'. They are your creatures, existing only to serve your purposes. Do not be in love with your protagonist, unless you want to make a complete tit of yourself, as Dorothy Sayers did with her Lord Peter Wimsey books. And yes, Virginia, it does show.

This isn't what 'kill your darlings' means
What King actually means when he says 'kill your darlings' is that you have to be prepared to let go of techniques and habits that you cherish. Perhaps you overuse a word or phrase. Perhaps you're convinced that writing in present tense and first person gives your work a fresh immediacy that will make it appeal to readers (it doesn't). Perhaps you love to give minute descriptions of bodily features, clothing or food. These things, not things you just happen to have done but things to which you are inordinately attached, are the 'darlings' of which Mr King speaks.

And he doesn't mean you always have to kill them all, either. By no means. Perhaps some technique to which you're very attached is actually working well for you, at least in the context of the instant work. That's not the thing you have to kill.

It's important, too, to recognise that when he talks about 'killing your darlings', King is talking about revisions, not your first draft. The phrase is meant to sum up the proper attitude to take on commencing your read-through for first revisions - that ruthless willingness to strike out anything, anything at all, that is not contributing, or that is, God forbid, actually making your book worse. And if that means you need to cut out your whole gay inter-species romance subplot, then you need to do that, even if it means your finished book isn't going to make the political statement you'd envisaged.

If religious allegory isn't working for your book, ditch it.
I cannot stress this enough. You need to get rid of anything that is bringing your book down. You also need to get rid of anything that's irrelevant. As the size of the work under consideration comes down, this need to eliminate widens its scope, until in a short story, you will need to dispense with anything that is not directly necessary to the main story, no matter how good it is. And that's what it means to kill your darlings.

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