Writing tip: It’s okay to let some of your darlings live

I have about 30,000 words worth of stuff I’ve taken out of my current manuscript — so far.

If you’re a writer, if you’ve been to even one writing conference, you’ve heard it: Kill your darlings.

The quote is from William Faulker, though sometimes it’s attributed to Stephen King, who was quoting Faulker. I once heard it attributed to Elmore Leonard, but he was quoting Faulkner, too. The point, if you’re the rare writer who has never heard it, is there may be things you really, really like in your manuscript that you’re going to have to get rid of.

The issue though is it’s frequently taken to mean that if you really, really like something, you have to get rid of it. Or if you really, really like something that someone else doesn’t like, you have to get rid of it.

Like a lot of pithy sayings that get tossed around, the deeper meaning frequently gets lost.

Here’s something to chew over: you don’t have to kill all of them, or even any of them. What you do have to do is harder.

Before killing the darling, see if passes these tests:

  • Can you make a case for allowing the darling to live?
    You’ve thought about what you’re writing. Thought deeply about what you wanted to say and how you’re going to say it. If you’ve done that, you should be able to make a case for the darling. If you can’t make a case after all that thinking, then kill it. If you haven’t done the thinking you need to do, go back to square one — I know! So hard! So much work! — and do that thinking, then see if the darling fits.
  • What does the darling add to the story?
    While your writing should be tight and the plot must steadily advance, you may have something bigger to say (again, you’ve thought about this bigger thing A LOT, right?). Does this darling advance understanding of character? Add to the theme? Is it consistent with your voice? If any of those apply, maybe it should be allowed to live.
  • What does the darling take away from the story?
    Does it drag the narrative down, confuse readers, feel out of place? Kill it! Or maybe rehabilitate it, if you feel it has a place in the book.
  • Does the blood-thirsty person urging you to kill understand what you’re doing?
    All of us have had times where someone reading our stuff has said we should kill a darling and we’ve argued for clemency and they’ve triumphantly come back with “Don’t forget, you have to kill your darlings!” They may be right, but killing just for the sake of killing — as mystery writers we know this — doesn’t work. Consider the source (I think Jim Bouton said that).
    It’s great to have people tell you how wonderful you are, but not if you want a good book. Conversely, it’s not great to have people not get what you’re doing. They’re not going to help much either. Pick manuscript readers who get your voice and genre, and who’ll be honest and offer constructive criticism.
    I understand that if your initial readers don’t get something, readers of the actual book won’t either. On the other hand, every single person in the world isn’t going to like or understand your book, your voice, or get what you’re saying. You need to, though, and the smart honest people who read for you ought to as well.
    It’s also important to remember that one person does not make a consensus — ask your other readers what they think. Yes, have more than one, and make sure they’re different enough so they have different approaches. (Keep it to three or four or you’ll never want to have anyone read your manuscript again.)
    It’s even more important that you, the writer, understand your voice and what you’re doing — I know I already said this, but I can’t say it enough — so you’ll know enough to know if someone simply doesn’t get it, or if they have a good point that you missed.
  • Talk it out.
    I’ve found the best way to rework things in my manuscripts that my initial readers don’t think works is to discuss it with them and figure out if there’s a way to make it work. All the above comes into play if you’re going to do this.
  • Understand criticism.
    Does what the person is saying make sense? Or do they just plain not like the darling because it’s not their personal taste, or it’s not the way they would write it, or it doesn’t conform to their reality? It’s important to know when someone who doesn’t like your darling doesn’t like it for reasons that don’t speak to the writing or the big picture.
    And that brings us to…
  • Knowledge is power (and confidence).
    It’s important to be confident enough in your voice and message that you can defend what you feel is important. But it has to be the kind of confidence that comes from  understanding the craft and what you are aiming for as you write.
    Yeah, I know I already said that in a bunch of different ways. But I can’t say it enough.

As someone who’s edited a lot of fiction and read hundreds of self-published books as a judge for the Writers Digest Self-Published Contest (I no longer do this, BTW, so don’t hassle me if you’ve entered), there were consistent issues that got in the way of good writing. By consistent, I mean the huge majority of books I read as an editor and as a judge had these problems. (Also, by all that’s holy, pay for a professional editor. Please. But that’s a blog post for another day.)
If these are recognized more darlings will live:

  • Writers didn’t have a clear overall idea of what their book was about.
    I’m not talking about the elevator pitch, or the plot, or the genre or sub-genre. I mean, what are you trying to say? If you’re trying to say something, then what works and what doesn’t will be easier to figure out.
  • Writers didn’t get beyond the first draft or revise.
    The huge majority of books I saw both as an editor or judge were first drafts. (Another reason to have a professional editor who will tell you this if they’re worth the money you’ll pay them.)
    I find as a writer that I work a lot of things out in the first draft, then when I go back and revise, I can take background and tangent out. I had to write it in the first place to figure out where I was going, but as I honed the narrative, I could get rid of it.
    I have more than 30,000 words of the manuscript that I just completed in folders in my computer. (Most of my darlings aren’t cremated or buried, they’re cyrogenically preserved for reference or possible future use).

Kill your darlings if you must, but don’t let innocent ones die in vain simply because you didn’t know how to keep them alive.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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2 Responses to Writing tip: It’s okay to let some of your darlings live

  1. Great post, Maureen! So well said. My favorite line: “they’re cryogenically preserved for reference or possible future use.”

  2. mike2all says:

    Just in the process of killing lots of them. Rewriting a novel that ought to haave sold lots, but didn’t. Rewriting it helps me realise why.


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