Posted by: Kathy Temean | September 20, 2012

KIlling Your Darlings

N.M. Kelby is the author of The Constant Art of Being a Writer: The Life, Art and Business of Fiction, the short-story collection A Travel Guide for Reckless Hearts, the bestselling novel In the Company of Angels and several other books. Her novels Whale Season and Theater of the Stars have been optioned for film, and she is working on a novel about the French chef Escoffier.

Kill Your Darlings.

FOLLOW IT: To fine-tune your prose and kill your darlings—those bits of work you’re so blindly in love with that you can’t recognize when they bog down or misdirect the story—you must eschew love in favor of a ruthlessness that could make you a prospective bride on “The Bachelor.” Address the page as if you are your own worst date. Easily bored, you pick away at perceived flaws and shortcomings. You find anecdotes and pointless witty banter tiresome. Precious wisdom makes you run. You find yourself being wary of everything, asking, “Does this really need to be here?”—because you know every scene, character and word is crucial.

But how do you really know which darlings should be killed? First, get some distance. Put your manuscript away for a few weeks so you can come to it with fresh eyes. When you begin to edit, read every word aloud, slowly—it will give you focus. I find that it also helps to think of your work as a producer thinks of a film. Words are like money. Spend them wisely. Each scene and actor is expensive, and so you must include only what you really need to tell your tale. And if you find yourself saying, “But I love this idea!” that should be the first thing to become suspect.

After all, everybody knows, including those hapless TV bachelors, love hurts. —N.M. Kelby

BREAK IT: Yes, it’s still me: I’m of two minds on this. First of all, who came up with the idea of killing your “darlings”? It appears to have been William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Mark Twain. No one seems to know for sure, but I say, Who cares? They’re all dead. The pressure probably killed them.

This approach to editing is the most dangerous tool in your repertoire. We write for the beauty of the well-turned phrase and the surprise of unexpected wisdom. So why “kill” these darlings? True, every word counts, but fiction is a journey. Your reader has her bags packed and is ready to go. Give her an adventure.

How do you strike a balance between economy and beauty? Practice. Read your manuscript aloud and imagine being at a cocktail party. You’re telling a story to someone you’ve just met. Think about what would interest or delight her—not you.

Rather than killing your darlings, hide them in well-marked files. You may use them later. And don’t let the pressure get to you. We should approach the page as a dog approaches an open car window. We have to stick our heads out, let our ears flap and watch for bugs in our eyes. We have to be in and of the moment. We have to let our hearts fly.
—N.M. Kelby

This first was printed in Writer’s Digest.

Talk tomorrow,


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