J. Robert King

Killing Your Darlings

3186949199_c303902c1a[1]There are many keys to successful revision. Hemingway is supposed to have advised that you “write drunk, revise sober.” He’s right in that you have to bring a different mind to revising than to writing.

Writing is generative, expansive, excessive, garrulous–even a bit mad. Writing is the Promethean act of stealing fire from the gods.

Revising must be the opposite. It’s about cutting, reducing, containing, condensing. It must be dispassionate and merciless.

With my first published novel some eighteen years ago, my editor complained about all the passages I liked the best. Liked is too flaccid a word. I loved them. When I confronted him about this, he said that I needed to learn to kill my darlings.

What an outrageous thing to say! I was supposed to destroy what I liked best in what I’d written? What kind of sado-masochistic Nazi would order an author to do that?

One who cares about the book rather than about the pieces of it.

Here’s the issue. When your are having more fun than your readers are, you’ve committed a cardinal sin: self-indulgence. Garrison Keillor wrote that reading a self-indulgent poem is like finding a condom on a beach. You know someone has been there and has had a good time, but it doesn’t mean that much to you.

The parts of your first draft that you read excitedly to friends and family are probably condoms on the beach. You had such a great time putting those parts together that you have no perspective on them.

The passage may be outright bad, like a drunken karaoke rendition of “Come Sail Away” that you performed at your best friend’s wedding reception. On the other hand, the passage may be brilliant but may have absolutely nothing to do with the book you are writing.

If your editor/reviewer questions such a passage, kill it. Yes, you are allowed to mourn the death of the passage. Yes, you are allowed to keep the passage and try to build another whole book around it. But if it doesn’t belong in this particular book, kill it.

Here’s one of the darlings I killed in my upcoming novel, Death’s Disciples. In this scene, a goat-herd in Colorado is crossing his upper pasture when the ground opens up beneath his flock. Being the scrappy critters that they are, the goats don’t want to jump down off the rising mound. But then they see the nose-cone of an ICBM emerging. At that point, the goats leap down–and here’s the darling I killed:

“That quieted the goats. They recognized the importance of an erection, especially a large one, and this was the largest erection they had ever seen.”

My reviewer wrote only “Really?” in the margin. And, sad as I was, I killed that paragraph.

Yes, I know, it’s karaoke–but I loved that line. But my book is better without it.

(Photo courtesy of rubber bullets from Flickr)

January 10th, 2010
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