Writers, can’t kill your darlings? Read this

You know the situation. A beta reader or editor says a precious part of your book has to go. You resist, strenuously. They fix you with an unforgiving eye and say: ‘kill your darlings’.

Sometimes we resist a change for good reason. The character/scene/description/flashback/whatever might be needed. It explains something, or adds resonance, or fills a gap in the story, though perhaps it doesn’t yet do its job. That’s fixable.

We also resist changes that will cause a hot mess, though we’ll probably make them when we’ve mustered the courage.

Those aren’t darlings.

What are darlings?

Darlings are things we cling to, with especial defiance, when we shouldn’t. They’re anything we’re keeping mainly because we like them, not because they are necessary for the book.

We all do it. We’ll do it on our first book and yea unto our umpteenth.

So why are darlings such a blind spot? Here’s my theory, from experience at both ends of the editing sword. Darlings carry emotional baggage.

  • We might keep a darling because it’s based on something personal.
  • We might keep a darling that’s totally invented, but it took a long time to draft or edit and because of that investment, it’s going in the goddarned book.

But look at those reasons. Are they about the reader’s experience? Or are they about us, the writer?

What now?

Assuming the beta readers are right, what are the options? Sit down, this is painful.

  • Remove the darling.
  • Change it so it better serves the book.

For some authors, the second option is every bit as scandalous as the first. And this is another way you can recognise a darling, should you wish to. It’s sacred. It must not be changed.

Truly I get it. A story isn’t a purely mechanical process, like building a bicycle. It’s a work of emotion too, a flow between the reader’s heart and ours. Our empathy, our gut quirks, give our book its distinctive life. All this is often beyond analysis. But our emotional contribution must be used carefully. Sometimes the most heartfelt parts of a book don’t touch the reader in the way they touch us. They’re muddling noise. Or embarrassing self-indulgence. Or boring. That’s what the beta readers are saying. They’re not feeling the vibe.

Still we resist. Dig our heels in.

I am NOT taking that out or changing it.

Loyalty to the darling runs deep.

It’s a tug of love. So here’s a more helpful question.

Which do we love better? The darling or the whole book?

It’s a hard call. I’m just as guilty as anyone of keeping stuff for bad, muddled reasons. You should see the outtakes files for my novels. But I’ve always found this: there comes a point where the manuscript seems to mature. When the book is working well, I appreciate what it needs as a whole. Then, I’m able to make the tougher decisions. I love the book more than I love a scene I’ve clung to for a long time, or a character or a description.

How you will know them

Here are a few more things I’ve learned about darlings.

They lurk in deep disguise. They often come from our very earliest workings on the book – for instance, a scene that helped us start the writing in the first place, or the first things we wrote about a character. They seem to be set in stone. But they don’t have to be. They might be scaffold – vital at first, unnecessary for the final piece.

A darling might come from our actual life, a secret ingredient of real experience or knowledge. This is another reason why they’re so hard to remove, because they are a kind of proof that we know what we’re writing about, that they came from something we learned first hand.Our vision and understanding of the book might be intrinsically tied to these darlings.

They once had an important purpose, but do they suit the book now? Has the book outgrown them?

These kinds of darlings don’t show their true nature until late on. It’s as if the editing process is a long relationship. In the first flush, we welcome everything we create for the book, especially the parts with the biggest life. (Darlings are often startling, dramatic, distinctive.) We’re discovering. From these, we might make numerous inspired and rewarding decisions. Those were important, but we don’t always need the material they came from.

I promise, because this always happens to me, that late in the process, you acquire a level of clarity and vision that will amaze you. When you’re very sure of the book, and of yourself in its skin, you’ll know when something no longer fits, even though it has been personally important to you in the book’s making. You recognise it strikes an unsuitable note, or tunes the reader wrongly, or muddies an important moment, or halts the emotional action. That’s when we can judge:

Which do I love more? This one precious part or the whole book?

There’s plenty more about killing your darlings in Nail Your Novel, and the accompanying workbook.

If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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  1. #1 by acflory on May 9, 2021 - 8:00 am

    Well said, Roz. I’m not a ‘lyrical’ writer so when I do write a passage or a scene that pleases me as prose…I find it hard to reach for the scalpel. The thing I liked best about this post though is the end. I have felt those moments when a story matures, and yes, when that happens , doing what must be done doesn’t quite so bad any more. 🙂

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 9, 2021 - 8:53 am

      Hi Andrea! That moment definitely comes, doesn’t it? And it’s often quite surprising.

      • #3 by acflory on May 9, 2021 - 11:29 pm

        lol – yes, it is surprising. I’m a bit anal so it takes me longer than most, but I know I’m there when I read the story and have this ‘I wrote that?’ moment [in a good way].

  2. #4 by V.M.Sang on May 9, 2021 - 8:14 am

    I can fully resonate with this post. Thank you so much. Of course, you must keep your darlings. They may come in useful for something else.

    • #5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 9, 2021 - 8:56 am

      Thanks! And yes, good point. Keep everything. You’ll always need materials for writing extra content about the book. You might even be able to use outtakes in another book.

  3. #6 by raynayday on May 9, 2021 - 9:31 pm

    Sadly I have had to do this far too often, going off on flights of fancy that entertained me but (probably) would not a reader. I am stubborn but not (lol- though some may disagree) stupid.
    All you say is right. Yet I wished to tell you of the one time that it was wrong.
    I had a novel coming out and was running (politics) for local office in the West Coast of Scotland. The constituency, very rural and remote was going to lose it’s last post office and I was in high dudgeon so in the novel I included a tirade against the privatized post office.
    My editor wished it removed, it had a bearing on the tale but little and rather esoteric but I insisted that it remain in. I had to cut loads of other stuff but the bit about the post office stayed.
    Anyway the mood in the constituency (I did not win by the way. It went to the conservatives) was dark, people were incensed by the closing of the post office and my rant in the novel was picked up by the local paper, then the national papers in Scotland, Then the Major UK broadsheets and then worldwide. My Little rant (three paragraphs in a three hundred page novel) became the news and the book sold more copies in a few weeks than all my other novels together at the time.
    So sometimes you can just get lucky.

  4. #8 by dgkaye on May 11, 2021 - 1:27 am

    Excellent post Roz. Ouchee, those darlings. 🙂

  5. #11 by nickreeves on May 12, 2021 - 4:59 pm

    Time to search out my darlings and put them in the shoebox of the future! Thanks!

  6. #13 by creative_ramblings on May 15, 2021 - 7:35 pm

    Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said “Less is more”. We can easily fall in love with the exuberant superlatives that we believe add depth and character to the story. In fact we can easily be adding distractions and clutter. In effect we are colouring-in and going over the lines. “Love is blind” so we don’t actually see where colour and line merge and smudge.
    I don’t see it as killing off our “darlings”, we are just putting them in the appropriate clothing.

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