Kill those darlings.
We all know the cliché (actually, it was Faulkner, not Stephen King, who coined the phrase) and, accepting its wisdom, do our best to kill those beloveds no matter how much it hurts. Sentences, paragraphs, whole scenes – deleted, leaving a cleaner and stronger narrative.
Deleted from the story, but not from our laptops or minds. Many of us (okay, me, but I bet I’m not the only one) squirrel them away, hoping we’ll be able to squeeze them into a future manuscript.
Of course, that rarely works. Unless, by some amazing chance, a grandfather scene exactly like the one I just deleted is precisely what the new book needs, the darlings need to stay in their coffins.
However, there are other possibilities for this excised material if we abandon the idea of keeping our darlings intact as chunks of prose and consider, instead, what they indicate, arise from, and serve.
A good way to do that is by adjusting the lens and zooming in or out. Zooming in means identifying small bits of language that can be extracted from their context. An image, a descriptive detail, a noun or verb that captures a particular sensation – that may be all that’s worth saving from the passage.
In stockpiling these usable phrases, it’s important to note their referents so you’re clear about how they might be used later. Does a phrase denote arrogance, the experience of unexpected emotional softening, a sense of foreboding? Later, you might be searching for a way to convey that very quality, and you’ll have a private dictionary to turn to. Retaining the meaning, along with the words, also helps to check the tendency to insert a phrase where it doesn’t really belong, simply because you can’t stand not to use it somewhere – the hallmark of a soon-to-be-dead-again darling.
Zooming out, in contrast, means stepping back from the specifics of what you’ve written to its source. What was that grandfather scene really about? Was it remorse at having taken someone for granted, nostalgia for a sense of safety that’s no longer possible? Perhaps it was the yearning to be someone’s favorite again, or the memory of a child’s frustration in not understanding an older person’s allusions. What was the feeling at the scene’s core, and why did it matter to my character? What purpose did I think it would serve in the story?
These sensations, intentions, aversions, and desires are only accessible when you zoom out and view the passage from a wider perspective, letting the trees blur so you can see the forest – that is, ignoring the words so you can perceive their source.
You may not need to retain the specific words and sentences. Often, in fact, it’s best not to – since they can influence, limit, and obstruct your vision – but their source can become a wellspring for fresh material. By letting go of the verbal formulation and connecting, instead, with the origin of the deleted material, you’re free to discover new possibilities.
To give an example:
In my earlier now-abandoned novel, the adult daughter of the protagonist was writing a master’s thesis on Georgia O’Keeffe. The “reason” I had her doing that (ouch) was so I could sneak in a backstory scene in which the protagonist came upon O’Keeffe’s Black Iris and had a profoundly transformative experience. The adult daughter’s thesis served no real purpose in the story, however, nor did the museum scene. They were, appropriately, killed off.
Yet there was something about the O’Keeffe painting that stayed with me – something it implied and evoked that I needed to express. It noodled around in that murky in-between part of the brain where creativity often occurs and then burst into life unexpectedly a year later, providing the genesis for the (much better) novel I’m currently working on. Without that now-dead darling, the new novel wouldn’t exist.
Zooming in and zooming out are inverse processes. In the first, context is discarded, freeing the words from their moorings; the focus is narrow, precise. In the second, words themselves are discarded, freeing the intention that gave rise to them; the focus is wide, diffuse, not yet confined to a specific manifestation. In neither case is the “darling” preserved intact, in the hope of shoe-horning it into a new slot. We’ve all tried that, and it doesn’t work.
We need not adopt either strategy, of course. Darlings can stay dead. But that would be a shame, since they often contain much that’s of value. That’s why we love them.
Do you, like me, have a file of deleted material?
What life might the material still contain if you approach it in a fresh way?