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.