Murder Your Darlings

“Murder your darlings,” advised Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

This statement might mean different things to different people. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch was a writer, so let’s consider his suggestion in the context of writing, and disregard the other, messier implications.

To narrow this down even more, suppose that darlings = sentences. We can use this equation when revising our manuscripts: When we come across a sentence that makes us think, “Oh, now that’s a lovely, lovely sentence I have written there”—we must kill it.

Gasp.

I agree that’s a little extreme. We all love books with beautiful sentences. But we’ve all read a book in which the author is so attached to her language that she sacrifices its meaning for beauty.

While we don’t have to kill all of our beautiful sentences, we should consider each one in the context of the overall book. If we find a sentence that’s in the book ONLY because it’s pretty, it shouldn’t be there. It’s already dead.

This is not a new idea. Countless writers have shared their own variations of “Murder your darlings,” including Stephen King, Nabokov, and Georges Simenon, who said, “I cut adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence—cut it.”

I’ve had these words in mind as I work through the third draft of my BP.

The BP was full of sentences I thought were pretty, but upon closer inspection, did nothing for the book. I wrote a lot of them before I figured out the plot. I wrote a lot more before I really knew the characters. And by the time I had a whole manuscript of sentences, the entire book had changed on me, and many—so many!—of my darlings had to go.

What happened is this: the audience changed.

The BP began as a satirical story about youth sports in America aimed at adult literati. A somewhat sardonic narrator told the story in omnipresent third person point-of-view, skipping through the minds of the kids, the coaches, the parents, the championship officials, and a roast pig.

The BP is now a young adult novel told in third person point-of-view, from the perspective of just two 14-year-old boys, Junior and Chris. The deeper I dug into their characters, the more Junior and Chris drove the language. Their voices shoved the sardonic narrator right off the page.

This narrator worked when the novel was intended for the literati, but it became all wrong when the audience shifted. This satirical voice began to intrude on the characters’ perspectives. Instead of narrating from within their heads, it narrated over their heads.

Changing the audience of the novel meant streamlining the language and cutting way, way back on the satire. Gone are my irreverent witty descriptions. Gone are my circuitous sentences.

And now the BP has become something very different. I have sacrificed some of the fancy literary style to go deeper into the characters. Now the book has a new style that’s drawn more from the characters’ point-of-view than from mine, which is at once scary and exciting.

It’s exciting because the third draft of the BP is closer to what it should be. And it’s scary because I am so attached to the language that it’s physically painful to summon the courage to strike when needed.

I will admit that I couldn’t bring myself to kill my darlings too dead. I pasted them all into a separate “Notes” document for safe-keeping. As I approach the end of the third draft this week, the BP is a trim 65,000 words.

The “Notes” document is 127,000.

My poor darlings.

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2 thoughts on “Murder Your Darlings

  1. Sensei says:

    This is precisely why you’re such a good writer and why you’re my favorite editor: you’re ruthless 🙂 And wise. I’ve definitely noticed that my favorite books are ones where the author gets out of the way of the characters and lets them do their own thing. In my own rewrites, I’ve been trying to get out of K’s way and let her voice shine through.

  2. oline says:

    so when the BP becomes a world famous masterpiece i’ll be forking over a small fortune for a copy of “notes: the murdered darlings of lara ehrlich”…

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