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On Killing Your Darlings

A few days ago someone on facebook posted a thing asking how to write shorter.  What he actually meant, it turned out, was how to write short stories, which is not precisely the same.  And yes, there is a “normal way” people’s writing goes, length wise. More on that later.

Anyway, among the pieces of advice given were a lot of things that “everybody knows.”  Like “read over the story. If there’s anything you particularly like, cut it.” And “you must cut out every adjective and adverb.”

Like all standard pieces of advice like “write what you know”, and yes, perhaps because of a deffect in my character, I immediately go “Really?  Are you sure? But what if…”

The truth is, none of these are, or should be, right in every occasion.Take the piece on “you must kill your darlings.”  Admirable for anyone who had an education in creative writing or any other upbringing that encourages you to regard literary fiction as something to emulate.  Or if you grew up enamored of certain of the more Gothic or baroque historical writing.

That is, if your darlings are intrinsically bad and don’t fit in what you’re trying to write, by all means, remove them.

If for instance you’re writing about a romance between college students in the 21st century but you mostly read Victorian prose, you probably should contain those flowing paragraphs and listen to how kids actually speak.

But if you’re writing Jane Austen fanfic and you are fascinated with some thesis from your Women’s Studies class, your darlings will be just as jarring and out of place.

On the other hand, supposing you’re writing in the genre you mostly read and your “darlings” are things that other people who read the genre and subgenre are proven to like, by making books that have those “cookies” bestsellers…. well, really… seriously. WHY WOULD YOU REMOVE THEM?  If you just go with “I like them, so they must be bad” you’re probably going to remove that which would have made your book a success.

The same things goes for adverbs and adjectives.  Sure. if that’s all you’re using, or if you use the kind of word that’s more noise than description “She did it beautifully” (unless said in dialogue and that in the context of the character’s speech) it doesn’t tell us a heck of a lot. “She walked gracefully” might.  But some adverbs and adjectives are actually (ah) necessary to lend voice and color to what would otherwise become flavorless mush.

I have a friend trained in journalism who hates the word “that” if it can be inferred from context. What he misses is that — particularly with first person narrative — “that” is often essential to set the rhythm or to separate two words, or simply to make the sentence more immediately obvious.  (Also that we’re not dealing in column-inches.

Just like “write what you know” is excellent advice. You should certainly not write in a genre you’ve never read, or about things that (ah!) you’ve not taken the time to research.  But the people who take it further than that into “write about things you’ve lived” would condemn us to losing all fantastic literature and some of the more interesting speculations or ideas.

So what is the lesson?

Buy no maxim un-examined.  The early bird might get the worm. Or it might get hit by the car of the early commuter.

Think about what you’re actually trying to do, and then think whether the advice applies.

Meanwhile what the person asking the question wanted to do was know how to write short stories.  Which is something completely different and has its own internal clock.

A short story is usually a scene.  In time terms it might be a few hours or a day (but not always) but it usually revolves around a single incident and its resolution.

The story of how I ended up writing this after midnight on Tuesday? Is a short story.  The story of how we ended up creating the blog, and the various incarnations it went through? That’s a novel.

And like other pieces of writing, it will go through a “length evolution” as you get better at it.  You usually start writing short (for novels too) then as your skill develops and you start seeing the unfolding complications, they balloon.  Mine went from average length (for shorts) 2k to average length 11k.  And then, as I got better goth at honing ideas and expressing them, they cut back to 6k which is what most of my stories are, on average, mostly because it used to be what everyone wanted.

Yes, some measure of control happens — most of the time — with practice.

On the way there, there are things you can do, like outline, and write more.

But following trite advice is unlikely to be what you need.

42 Comments
  1. Paula Runte #

    This post was very helpful. Thank you, thank you.

    October 16, 2019
  2. Write what you know can also bite you in the tail if you are not careful. Like a scene that is carefully researched to ensure accuracy, has some of (what you consider) the most realistic dialog, and is true representation of what would really happen, only to learn that none of your beta readers like it.
    “too wordy”, “slows your opening”, “drop this part and go to [2nd half of scene]”.

    Broke my heart to have to cut that scene, it is after all a pretty close depiction of what road patrol is really like, but when I finally get to the next draft, it will be gone.

    October 16, 2019
    • Yep. Real is life is not good fiction.

      October 16, 2019
    • I wouldn’t have cut the scene. I’ll go one farther, I didn’t cut a scene that a writing group thought was unrealistic etc. Why? Because it was based on years of real experience.

      October 16, 2019
      • When I got past the denial, I took a step back and took a hard look at the scene. As realistic as it was (I was still wearing the badge when I first wrote the scene) it did slow down the story. And there is no other spot where I can move it so it’s gone – at least until I can find another story where I can sneak it in. 😉

        October 16, 2019
        • fiction is not reality. Fiction is reality with the boring parts cut out.

          October 16, 2019
          • *grin* I like that.

            October 16, 2019
        • Mary #

          Clipping files. Wonderful things.

          October 17, 2019
    • I’m thinking about the Niven/Pournelle battle scene that was SUPPOSED to be the intro to “A Mote in God’s Eye.” They had to cut it, mostly, if I recall correctly, because the book was already monster length. There MAY have been some concern about pacing, but I think it was primarily length. In the era of the eBook, maybe it would have stuck with us?
      At any rate, they cut it, but they kept it, and it’s been included in at least two collections of their writings, and it’s a great scene.

      So, don’t throw the scene away. At some point in the future, publish it, with other odds and ends, and let your fans make squee-noises.

      October 16, 2019
      • I’m laughing over here. If you could see my hard drive you’d know why. 😀 If make any major edits or revisions to a story it gets saved as title-suffix. Drive’s my sister insane when she sees title, title2, title3. “How many copies of ‘title’ do you need?” Weeeell*, this version has a change in this section here, but I’m not sure I want to keep that, or revert back. [if you’ve ever seen Bewitched, think of how Sam draws that out when she tries to explain something to Deerwood.]

        October 16, 2019
        • That’s what I do as well. Book starts off as [title]_A_01, then ends up at [title]_A_72 because I save the writing (and corrections) incrementally as I go along. Then there’s the edit stream, [title]_B_01 to however many times I change sections of it.

          Haven’t had one get to [title]_C_01 yet, but I’m sure I will eventually.

          October 16, 2019
  3. “read over the story. If there’s anything you particularly like, cut it.”

    This guy seems like a real riot at parties.

    October 16, 2019
  4. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    I’ve read some of your other advice/guides to short stories. This bit of advice has some new things that you’ve not previously enumerated.

    It has helped me, thank you.

    October 16, 2019
  5. Zsuzsa #

    Just like “write what you know” is excellent advice. You should certainly not write in a genre you’ve never read, or about things that (ah!) you’ve not taken the time to research. But the people who take it further than that into “write about things you’ve lived” would condemn us to losing all fantastic literature and some of the more interesting speculations or ideas.

    Kevin Williamson was writing the other day about a gay novelist who was about to turn 50 and had just written an award-winning book….about a gay novelist who was about to turn 50. That’s what the literatty would like to condemn us to. I’m not sure if they just drank too deeply of the kool-aid in their creative writing classes or if they really can’t find any interests outside of their own mirror.

    As far as “killing your darlings goes,” I would say that Larry Correia’s rule for shortening things is better: if it’s boring take it out, if it’s interesting leave it in.

    October 16, 2019
    • Mary #

      You can follow that rule off a cliff. A collection of interesting things do not a story make.

      there are writers who refuse to cut out something irrelevant to the story because it fascinates them. It does not help the story.

      October 17, 2019
  6. Reziac #

    The misuse of ‘kill your darlings’ (not even a correct quote) never fails to make my teeth itch. It didn’t mean “do away with everything you especially like” — it meant “don’t write like a pretentious twit.” And as used there, ‘darling’ didn’t mean loved-ones; it meant what we now call a precious snowflake.

    https://www.lisaspangenberg.com/writing/murder-your-darlings/

    Apparently we can blame the current misuse on some claptwaddle expressed by William Faulkner.

    In my observation, Quiller-Couch wrote in a rolling style that draws you along, like it or not. Conversely, Faulkner is choppy and boring.

    October 16, 2019
  7. A lot of the trite advice comes from English Lit and professor driven writing classes. Gawd I remember this advice. I’m learning the hard way that adverbs are really needed to show degree… and the adjectives are even more necessary to add color. Thanks for the reminder.

    October 16, 2019
    • yep. As usual they confused the fashionable minimalist style back in the mid twentieth century with “the only true way to write.” Pfui.

      October 16, 2019
    • I never understood the hatred for adjectives and adverbs. Why is that even there? Can someone please explain?

      October 16, 2019
      • Journalism and Hemingway is the very short version. Hemingway tended to be very terse compared to other writers of his time, at least when he started, and the novelty caught critics’ attention. The “journalistic” style of novel became popular, and authors thought that it required dumping description. Except they didn’t do it quite right. They read Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett and others and missed how the masters actually did description.

        That’s what I was told, by an English prof. YMMV.

        October 16, 2019
      • …the hatred for adjectives and adverbs. Why is that even there?

        I like them! But I do have to be careful.

        I’ve found that because I can see the setting so clearly in my mind’s eye, I sometimes try to convey it too fully. If the adjectives stack up too deep, the density of information in a sentence becomes too great for the reader to take it in. It turns into the equivalent of visual noise.

        Gotta remember to leave some to my reader’s imagination! 😀

        October 16, 2019
        • Oh yeah. I get the ‘too much’ (I have to stop myself sometimes) but the thing I’ve noticed seems to be ‘dislike of any, at all.’

          To some extent it even feels like deliberately hamstringing the opposition, y’know?

          October 17, 2019
      • Some professor liked the 20th century style of writing and it caught on in the academic field. Then the academics tried to teach CW. Yes, I am laughing.

        October 16, 2019
        • I wouldn’t write for academia the same way I’d write for pleasure. Not sure if I’d write the same way though, if journalling history, versus factually describing scientific results, though.

          October 17, 2019
      • Because of a literary style called minimalism. Most writing teachers don’t understand it’s just A STYLE.

        October 16, 2019
        • And, I gather, often wrongly applied, yes?

          October 17, 2019
          • Yes. In fact, some historians and other non-fiction writers are going back the other way and putting the description and details back in, WHEN they find sources that let them do that. (Document, document, document…)

            It’s like Elmore Leonard saying “you should never use a dialogue tag other than ‘said’.” Because he uses description and other things to let the reader know who is speaking. So some people went through and cut all their dialogue down to “Bob said.” “Jake said.” Over, and over, and over, and you get the picture.

            October 17, 2019
          • of course. BTW the crazier extension they tried to teach my kids in high school was “Don’t use pronouns. Name the thing each time.”
            I mean, one should avoid unclear antecedents, but NOT pronouns.

            October 17, 2019
            • *stares at ‘don’t use pronouns’*

              *feels brain twitch*

              *narrows eyes*

              *dry* Can you imagine giving that advice now? I mean… it seems to be all about the pronouns now.

              *facepalm*

              October 18, 2019
  8. 23 skidoo

    October 16, 2019
  9. “Is this [scene] necessary?” I’ve been mulling over that this AM. I think, in the case flagged by an alpha reader, it is, because it drops a clue to something in the next book. So it stays, perhaps trimmed of a little detail in order to tighten the scene for pacing.

    Which is another thing to keep in mind when editing/trimming—is it needed for the next story? If you know that you are going to add another volume to the series, then I’d hesitate before cutting. If you are writing a stand-alone, or ending the series, then removing the piece might indeed work better.

    “There is no One True Way,” unless you are writing for a grade. Then stick to the rubric.

    October 16, 2019
  10. mrsizer #

    What baffles me is not the “I like it” and “I don’t like it” categories, but the “I can’t put it down” versus “I’ll get to it” categories. I’m re-re-re-reading Family Law trying to figure out why it captures my attention so well. I’m still getting sucked into the story, not figuring it out.

    As for “I don’t like it”, an RPGLit series I was reading was OK, if a bit too into the RPG details (“kill your darlings” applies here). Then the author starting using “they” as a singular pronoun sometime around book 6, which was really irritating, but I had five books of momentum. Book 8 was not in KU (book 1 in KU and the rest purchase-only seems fair and reasonable, but stopping at book 8?!?). Three strikes, you’re out.

    October 16, 2019
    • Randy Wilde #

      Book 8 was not in KU (book 1 in KU and the rest purchase-only seems fair and reasonable, but stopping at book 8?!?).

      As an aside, that would make sense to me (as a reader, I’m not an author) if Book 8 had just been released, and there were plans to add it to KU later, maybe after 6 months or a year. It’s like pre-ebook… there were some authors I’d buy in hardback because I didn’t want to wait, others I’d buy as soon as the paperback came out, and still others I’d wait to borrow from the library or a friend.

      October 16, 2019
      • Harry #

        If the series in question was the one I think it was (I never finished book 1, so I don’t recognize comments about book 5 & later), book 8 went Kindle Unlimited after ~3 days (might’ve been 4).

        October 17, 2019
        • mrsizer #

          It’s eleven books now (and I think it’s complete), so I wasn’t reading-as-published. But no need to speculate… Nope. Still purchase-only.

          October 17, 2019
      • mrsizer #

        A note to the authors here: That assumes I will remember you and your series when the pricing model changes.

        In the bad old days, it was fairly easy to follow authors one liked and keep watch for “out in paperback” because there were so few of them. These days, there are so many authors and so many series that very few make it to the watch-list threshold. If I stop in the middle of your series, for whatever reason, it is very unlikely that I shall ever resume.

        Off the top of my head, I shall never know what happens to our intrepid, near immortal heroes in Star Force, the fate of Emerilia and the larger galaxy will remain forever unknown to me, the daring adventures of Mercedes Lackey’s elemental mages (don’t even remember that series name) will pass me by. I think the Silver Ships series is still going, but I’d have to start over to understand it, so no go there. As far as I know, the Kurtherians are still wandering the universe. I wonder if Katherine Kurtz is still writing? I like her books, but the trad-pub pricing model leaves room for others on my Kindle.

        October 17, 2019
  11. Mary #

    One excellent feature of ebooks and self-publishing is that there is a way to sell novellas. I used to refer to the Unpublishable Void. It started at 20 or 25 thousand words (changing over the years) and ended at 60 thousand words. Inside those bounds, you could not sell. Not without being a Big Name.

    October 17, 2019
    • Mary #

      Meanwhile — my theory is The Sticky Ideas Theory of Story Length

      October 17, 2019
    • mrsizer #

      Pam does this with Wine of the Gods. Sometimes I don’t notice the price when I buy it (the evils of the “Buy with One Click” button) and wonder why the book ended so soon. I much prefer that to never seeing the book at all.

      October 17, 2019
      • Mary #

        Yes, you can serialize, but you can also do stand-alone novellas.

        Such as, oh, Queen Shulamith’s Ball, just out yesterday!

        October 17, 2019
  12. On the ruthless slaying of one’s darlings: I find that comes into play when I’ve written, say, a witty exchange between my protagonists. It’s funny, it’s appropriate to the characters, it makes me think how brilliant I am to have thought it up— but it does nothing whatsoever to forward the plot. On the contrary, it drags out the scene. Sorry, little darling, but it’s off with you to the Outtakes File.

    October 18, 2019

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