More so than some other cliched writing advice we’ve discussed in this series, “kill your darlings” sometimes makes sense. It’s dangerous to get super-attached to a character or a sentence or a scene in your book that doesn’t truly belong. If your character who has always spoken in short, sharp declarations suddenly busts out a lyrical soliloquy, that’s a problem. Ditto if you have a gorgeous description of a location that’s not actually important to the plot, or a fascinating scene with a riveting character who then doesn’t make an appearance anywhere else in the book. These are your “darlings”, and sometimes, they’ve gotta go.
But hold on just a sec. As with any rule, an indiscriminate application of “kill your darlings” can hurt your writing more than it helps. So a new spin on the old advice may take you in a different direction. Here are three spins you might try:
Keep your darlings. If you’re getting feedback from an agent, critique partner, or other reader that some part of your book that you adore just doesn’t fit, step back and decide if you agree. Are they right? Maybe you’ve got a showy sentence in Chapter One that your beta reader recommends cutting, but you know it’ll pay off in Chapter Ten. Other people’s opinions are incredibly valuable in the writing process, but in the end, they’re just that — other people’s opinions. If you truly consider the critique and decide you don’t agree with it, there’s no law that says you have to make those changes. (Note: this isn’t always the answer, though, so do make sure you’re giving the critique a fair shake.)
Reserve your darlings. If the material you love so much really doesn’t belong in the piece that you’re writing, take it out, but set it aside. It could come in handy again later. I had to cut a character — an angry but charming chef named Ruben — from an early draft of The Kitchen Daughter. I hated to do it, but he really didn’t belong in the book, so I pulled all the material related to him into a separate file. Lo and behold, when my publisher and I decided to release a food-themed short-story as an e-book around the time of the Kitchen Daughter paperback release, who became central to that short story? Ruben, of course. This works for characters, sentences, scenes — any type of darling you might need to ax. Kill them, but not dead. Place them in suspended animation, and if you need them later, wake them up for action.
Grow your darlings. Is that fabulous first chapter too far removed from the action of the rest of the story? Or maybe that plot twist you’re so proud of just comes out of nowhere, and you didn’t realize you hadn’t laid the groundwork until your beta reader pointed it out. Maybe the answer is to take out the part that doesn’t fit.
Or maybe the answer is to rework the book until that part does fit. Instead of removing the plot twist, get in there and lay the groundwork, chapter by chapter and scene by scene, so that the reader’s reaction is “Oh wow, of course!” instead of “Huh?” Or restructure the timeline of the book so that the events of that fabulous first chapter happen alongside the rest of the main action. The book that you’ve written is only one possibility, and you have to decide how to take the book that is and turn it into the book you want it to be. Maybe, yes, that means taking out something you love. Or maybe it means taking that part that you love and making more of it — growing it — so it is integral to the book, and not some lovely but irrelevant aside.
So what should you do with your darlings, in the end? Kill them? Grow them? Set them free? That’s totally up to you.
(Image by Kyle May)