We’ve all heard how important it is for writers to “kill their darlings,” but what does that actually mean? How and when should you do it? Are there any other options? Why is this advice so common? We talk about all those questions and more on today’s episode, and hopefully give you some useful advice about manuscript revision. Plus, Wes shares a special exercise for tightening your wordcraft. It’s top secret, so listen now before the Copy Editor Illuminati comes for us!
Generously transcribed by Nichole. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Voiceover: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Wes: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes. And with me today is…
Wes: And pull out the red pens and the machetes, because it’s time to get murdering, of your darlings. We’re talking about revising and removing all of the things that you love in your manuscript, to turn it into a bland corporate nightmare.
Oren: No. Hang on. I thought we were here to kill our Karlings. Is this not a Crusader Kings III let’s play? Am I in the wrong studio? [sarcastic] [Laughing]
Wes: Well, you’ve seen too much, so you either have to stay or we have to deal with you. [Laughing]
Oren: All right. All right. So what does this mean? Why, how do, what is a darling? Why would we kill it? That seems rude.
Wes: I was curious about the origin of the phrase and it looks like William Faulkner gets credit for it, but it seems like it’s another kind of Abraham Lincoln situation where it’s just a popular phrase that gets attributed to somebody else. And some random medium and other articles said that it was actually some guy named Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who coined the phrase, “murder your darlings” and the quote in full reads:
Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it wholeheartedly and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.
No, I’m not, I’m not entirely sure what he’s trying to get across, but it’s hilarious.
Oren: What is that? Like if you’re motivated to write, you shouldn’t do it. Only write if you’re feeling terrible. [sarcastic] [Laughing]
Wes: That’s right. [Laughing] Everything else is trash. [Laughing]
I think maybe Faulkner gets it. Cause maybe he included it into a speech when he won some award or something. But anyway, we’re talking about killing or murdering your darlings today. That’s just an expression that comes up a lot when people talk about revision. And writers not wanting to get rid of this stuff that they like, and they think that the editor is out get them because their editor doesn’t understand, or you know, insert any number of reasons here. We’re going to talk about revision. We’re going to talk about a lot of the things, I could say the bigger culprits. Why people kind of want to keep some things in their stories, and why they need to go or they need to be refocused because if your stories elements are not serving a common purpose, they got to go. And you can put them in the drawer for later.
Oren: Yeah, this is true. Although I would like to talk briefly about a strategy that Chris and I like to use, which is called “centering your darlings”. It’s not a fullproof strategy. Sometimes you will have problems, but there are ways in which you can take something that is extraneous, that you should probably cut and incorporate it into the main story.
For example, let’s say you have a story that is divided into two, basically separate parts. You have a princess trying to overthrow her evil brother and a knight slaying dragons a couple of continents over. These are completely separate stories. There’s no reason for them to be in the same book. This is basically what happens in Game of Thrones with Daenerys. Something has to go. Or you can combine them. You can have the evil brother be using dragons, and then the knight can either be someone working for the princess or could just be the princess. You could just combine those two characters. And now you have gotten to keep both of the things you wanted and still make one story.
Chris: I like to think about this in the context of paying attention early to what your darlings are and putting them in the position where you won’t have to cut them. Because all too often storytellers, what they care about is one thing and they don’t think hard enough about how to make that important to their plot. They are just like, “I have this thing, I really like it. Oh drat, I need conflict.” And then they latch on some completely unrelated conflict. Pretty soon the thing that they cared about, the thing that is why they were writing this story, is they’re darling that is extraneous. They ended up killing it and they have a story that they didn’t want to write. And the preventative, ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, kind of thing, is to make sure that that thing that you care about is in the center of your story to start with. That way you can actually care about your story and you can harness your passion to good ends. But basically, regardless of how it’s done, before or after your starlings need to go towards the center or die.
Oren: Or die.
Wes: Or be put on ice. [Chuckling]
Oren: Yeah. Okay. I’m going to confess something here, which is that often I say, save it for the next book, knowing full well that the author will never do that. They will never use it. I say that because it makes taking out things easier. I’m sorry. You know my secret.
Wes: I think that, maybe they know on some level. Right? They’re like, “Oren’s right. We’ll pretend that this is what’s happening.” [laughing]
Oren: Yeah. You know, you’re sending your darling to a farm upstate. It’s fine.
Wes: We are kind of spending a lot of focus on darlings as relating to actual characters in the book and I do want to point out that your darlings could be characters and subplots or your darlings could be backstory, exposition or going wild with a thesaurus in your descriptions. Your darlings are your darlings and they are yours. If you abuse adjectives, and you just love doing that. Those are your darlings to confront. The scale here is all over the place. But it still all follows the same advice. Because when we talk about centering these things, all the story elements relate on either on a structural level or maybe even an aesthetic level. And if you have a darling penchant for flowery dialogue, but the tone of your book is not suited to that, you’re going to need to confront that during revision. Ideally you could try to confront that at the start, but that’s hard. [chuckle] But if you are aware of things that you do have a love of, that can obviously help inform an editor or a beta reader, anybody that might be willing to help you with this revision.
Chris: I think it is worth talking about the root of the problem that causes so many things to need to be cut in revision. Which is kind of a lack of understanding that a story should have the minimum necessary things in it to work. Aside from talking about style mismatches. Right Wes, that you were just covering.
Oftentimes the things that are darlings that have to be cut are excess backstory, excess flashbacks, excess characters, excess plot threads, all of those things. And lot of times what happens, especially with writers that are new. They almost always make their story too complex and try to stuff too much stuff in it. It’s partly that there’s no early expectation sets. Nobody communicated to them that you can’t do that. The story can’t fit everything you want.
The idea that there is comprehension scarcity on the readers end. There’s a limit to how much the reader can actually absorb. Also when you’re new, you have no idea how much content can fit in a certain space. It’s really common to think you’re writing a novel and then find out that it’s like a whole series of novels, because that’s how much plot you were planning to put in there. And a novel can’t even fit that much.
As a result of “hey, this is my first novel I want to put everything that I like in there”, and not thinking about “what type of things belong in this particular work”. Maybe this new cool idea you have, maybe you shouldn’t try to put it in what you’re working on right now. Maybe you just need to hold onto that for the next work, even though you’re excited about it right now. As a result, it’s really common for writers to have way too much going on, which means there’s a lot of cutting that has to be done.
Wes: Which is also tough because one of your darlings could very well, just be the fact that you put words on paper and you spent hours on those words on paper, and you love them for how much, blood, sweat, and tears it took to get them on the paper. And even if you know they’re not good. You’re still probably going to be resistant to cut them because it might seem like a failure and it’s not. You got it out and it got you further along in your story and that’s important. As editors, we understand that you did the bulk of the work here and we’re just trying to help refine it to something better.
Oren: Fortunately, as a dev editor, I don’t have to consider that level of darling. When I have dev editing, I often see this person is really over dependent on adverbs or whatever, but that’s not my problem. I don’t have to talk to them about that.
Wes: I would also suggest to Oren that as a dev editor you would encounter another particular darling that I think gets to print too often is, first chapters can be considered darlings because there’s so much pressure on first chapters. They should introduce the main character, establish the stories world, reality, mood, get the main conflict up and running, kind of establish a baseline for character development, maybe there’s themes in there. You can see how some writers might approach a windup, “Oh, if you just stick with me through these first five chapters, then it’ll really get cooking”. Where as a good dev editor should say no kill all of that. Go away. Let’s start with the conflict. This all amounts to backstory.
Oren: I’d say it’s a little more complicated because on the one hand you are definitely right, a lot of writers do start off with just a bunch of very slow uninteresting scene setting. There’s a question of, “is that scene setting even necessary?” Sometimes it’s not. But sometimes it is, and it’s less of an issue of “you got to chop it off” and more, “you have to move your conflict where you’re scene setting is”. I’d say at the beginning of the story, the one that I run into the most is actually the prologue, because frankly by the definition, a prologue is what happens before the story starts. There’s almost never a reason to have that. In most cases, when a prologue actually works, it’s not really a prologue by any meaningful definition. It’s just chapter one that someone has labeled a prologue.
That’s the one that I run into most at the beginning of stories. It’s like “here’s the prologue, let me tell you about the creation myth of my setting”. I guarantee you the reader doesn’t need to know this. [Chuckles]
Wes: How about epilogues?
Oren: Those are a little different, because resolution is actually something that writers tend to neglect. Resolution and falling action is important, especially after a long story. There is a particular kind of epilogue, which is problematic. Which is the 20 years later epilogue, which is not necessary. That’s not important in most cases. Usually what people need at the end of the story is some weaning period. Where they get to see that their characters are okay or see them adapting to their new life or whatever. Some kind of “let them down easy” rather than “they beat the boss” and now the story’s immediately over.
Chris: Right. And it’s technically epilogue, but a lot of times when it appears at the end of the book, it’s not called epilogue or considered epilogue. But it is technically epilogue if all of the plot threads have been resolved. If you want to see how necessary it is, sometime read the Martian. That book is a really good book, but one of its problems is that it ends as soon as the main conflict is resolved, just a cold stop. It’s like “Look, I just want to see Mark Watney get back to earth and eat a good meal [laughing], after being on Mars and growing thin because he’s stretching out his rations as much as possible”. In the movie, they did add an epilogue to that, so that then you can see what Mark Watney got from his experience. He’s back on earth, lecturing to students about his experience. You get to see that follow up and it’s not in the book. But the whole 20 years later, no. No, no, no. [Chuckle] Just put it down and walk.
Wes: Another story that really could have used more epilogue is the She-Ra cartoon on Netflix, which is quite good overall. Some mild spoilers, I guess maybe not that mild. After they win, basically, they just needed a little more time to show the characters rebuilding. Partly because the whole world had gotten trashed. I would have appreciated seeing some reconstruction. Also they had just had some very questionable redemptions. Particularly for Hordak. Just an epilogue where I got to see that Hordak was being a good guy and helping rebuild and helping undo the damage he did. I still wouldn’t have loved that redemption arc, but it would have been something. As opposed to, “I guess Hordak is good now, bye”. [sarcastic] [Laughing]
Oren: Doesn’t one of the characters even call that out, like “so we’re just cool with this?”
Wes: They lampshade it, and sure it’s an animated show, they have limited time and budget. I’m willing to believe that there was no time. I’m unwilling to believe that they decided to have a random filler episode where Catra gets a magic cat, instead of doing that. [laughing] That did happen. But in a novel you have much more control. So plan accordingly.
Chris: I think another reason why darlings might be so associated with needing to cut things is because sometimes when there is something that sticks out in the story as being completely useless and there for no reason, the fact that it’s a darling is why it hasn’t already been removed. A lot of times, those excess things are like, “just there because I really liked that thing. I know it has nothing to do with my plot. I just really like it”. Sorry, [laughing] not good enough.
Oren: Oh, although frankly, the times when I meet an author who was honest enough to be like, I just really liked that. I know it doesn’t have anything to do with my plot. It’s like, that’s a step past where most authors are, including myself. I have this problem too, because as you write things, you create this intricate web of connections in your head that may or may not have any real bearing on what’s on the page. And so to you, it can seem horrifying to remove this thing cause it’s necessary. No, let me make you a conspiracy board of how all these things they’re connected [laughing] and it’s like Oren. None of that is actually on the page. That’s all in your head. It’s like, “shut up, you can’t take this from me”. So I get it, I’m on that side of the table sometimes when I’m the author. This is just a thing that as an author, you can get better at over time. It’s recognizing what you actually put on the page versus what you imagine is happening in your head. And that’s just a skill that you’ll develop as you write more.
Chris: And as far as tricks for trying to let go of darlings. We discussed the push it to the next book technique. Which sometimes I do feel like encouraging writers to push it to the next book, I’m delaying this problem till later. But the fact is that for most writers that are not already established and publishing lots of books. You need to make that first book as easy as possible because there’s a good chance if they don’t make that. If they don’t get that done, don’t get that out. The second book is not going to happen anyway. [chuckle] So trashing the second book in order to make the first book better is often a good trade off.
Wes: Yeah, you’re right. Because on some level, you’re saying, “Hey, save this for the next book.” Then there’s a warrant that says you’re finishing this one. The second one, you can deal with that later, you can kind of finish it. You’re going to get it done.
Chris: There are a lot of plots where ideally like “Hey this other thing is cool, but you should just put it in a different story.” I find that writers are usually surprisingly reluctant to do that, unless it’s something simple and easy to split apart, like a short story. It’s not as much effort to make a short story into two short stories. Oren, do you have ever have much luck getting your clients to split a novel and in two novels, just because it has two completely different things going on?
Oren: More than you might think actually. Or at least, I get authors who understand intellectually, why I’m recommending they do that. I have had one or two authors who were just like, “no, I’m not going to, I’m going to keep my two completely unrelated stories in the same novel.” But generally I can get them to understand. And there’s a certain psychological trick that we’re doing here. Where we’re like, “okay, no, you’re not cutting this. You’re putting it in another book, whether it’s the next book or a separate book.” Once that has allowed them to take it out of the book that it’s currently in, they might or might not decide they actually want to do something with it later. That’s not as important. What you’re basically doing is allowing yourself to let it go. You are allowing yourself to sever the intricate connections that you’ve built in your head with the promise that you will rebuild them later and it doesn’t really matter if you do or not. You know, this is just a trick to help people.
By the same token. I’m pretty positive that a lot of the people I work with don’t ever actually do the recommendations we agree are the correct way to do things. Because people simply have a limited amount of energy to revise novels. Or even short stories. And there is only so much revision you can do. This level is higher for professionals, right? It kind of has to be, but for people who are just starting, and even people who’ve been at it for a while, you reach a point where you just can’t bring yourself to work on that story anymore. Even though, you know, intellectually the way forward, it’s just no longer worth it. In that case, the value and the lesson is, “now you know what to do next time”. And at that point it’s actually easier just to start over.
Chris: What I’ve found is, even if it’s not a matter of, “I just don’t have the energy to work on the story anymore”, what happens if you have a big story in a particularly overly complex one that you work on for many years, right? An extended period of time. Is that you get better during that time, but the story does not get better at the same pace that you, or your skills get better. And I do find that even though theoretically, you can completely turn a story around with revision, practically it’s actually really difficult to do your best work if you’re starting with something that you wrote when you had significantly lower skills. Just starting with that thing, first of all, it puts you in a different mindset where it limits what possibilities you think of for the story. Because you’re always thinking about that as your starting point and almost working within those constraints and it’s hard to break free.
Whereas if you were to rethink things from the ground up with your new skills, you would just produce much better results, than if you’re working under all of these constraints, starting with what you have. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is, again, if you really liked the story and you really do have the energy to just keep going on it. Let yourself throw away the old version and write it again, instead of continuing to revise it. Or alternately, decide that it would be better if you set it aside for a while so that you get emotional distance. And come back with much more distance, you’re going to be more able to make the bigger changes to it. We’d like to do that revision and analyzing your own stories is great practice, helps build skills and a lot of stories once revised can be great stories, but there’s sometimes there are limits and you can’t necessarily get it all the way there. Unfortunately, just practically.
Oren: This is also where if you are an outliner, you can get a lot of value out of that process, because if you plan ahead and get things figured out before you have done all of the work to draft it and built all those connections in your head, it is so much easier to make those changes. Discovery writers work differently. That’s a process question. But assuming you do outline, that is one of the advantages. It drains your revision quota a lot slower.
Wes: If you are looking to keep working and not get distance, but want a fresh perspective on your darlings and potential areas for revision, then I might suggest a line editing exercise. Is anybody still here? Did everybody leave?
Chris: I want to hear this line editing exercise.
Wes: Let’s say that you might be a little concerned that one of your darlings might be, let’s just say overwriting. Whether that might be you’re worried about melodramatic prose or just extra fluff or something like this. This is the thing that we, you know, like line and copy editors just do all the time and it’s, well it’s fun for us. I don’t know what I’m revealing about myself with this, but, [chuckles] you basically play a concision game. The thing you’re basically doing is taking a sentence and saying, “okay, can I keep the same thing, but take out five words? Does this character actually need to raise her eyebrow for the message to come across?”
And so you start, the recommendation is that you take like a page or two from your manuscript and you copy paste that content out onto a separate doc, and then you play the concision game with it and you just chop it down. You try to say, “okay, I’m just going to take 500 words here and I’m going to see if I can get it to 350, while keeping basically the same information. I’m just going to cut out all the fluff,” and you probably will do that, but you’ve taken it out of your manuscript. You’ve copied and pasted it and elsewhere. So it’s not really part of that, but it can serve as a good focus exercise.
Admittedly, I will do this on things that I edit, even for the website. I will put it in a separate doc and I will just edit it down as far as I possibly can, knowing that, that isn’t going to be the actual result, but it does sharpen focus and bring your attention to other things because you start noticing what you’ve decided to remove. And then you’re in a better position to say whether or not you actually think it should be in there. Whether or not it’s a typo or it’s just like extra adverbial phrases or whatnot. But it can help if you have the energy, that’s key here, to hyper condense a piece of writing. It doesn’t work for everybody, but it works for people who like revising stuff. If you don’t want to wait for distance, you can kind of force perspective with this exercise.
Chris: I should also mention that you can do it at slightly larger scales, too. Right? You can experiment with cutting whole sentences because it is very common for there to be repetitive sentences in works and at larger levels. If you do find that you have a complete story that you like, but you are over word count, this is not a terrible way to reduce your word count. You don’t have to kill any of your darlings in the story if you just go through and make all of your wording more concise to reduce your word count.
Wes: And if you pull that off, it feels good. You’re just like, “Oh my God. Yeah, I did that.”
Oren: Y’all are talking about words and this is dev editor territory. We don’t do words here. [sarcastic] [laughing]
Wes: You do thoughts.
Oren: If we deal strictly in ideas, they might or might not become stories. What are those like actual, like sentences? What is that? [laughing] Sounds like a thing that plebs do. [sarcastic]
Wes: Oren I’m curious, cause another darling that I think some people fall prey to is, I think arguably all stories have messages. Some more heavy handed than most, and some writers really want you to get that message. Have you ever had to encounter that where it’s like, “Hey, being subtle here is better, we could get rid of a fair amount.”
Oren: So, first of all, it should be noted that I am an enemy of subtlety. I don’t like subtlety. I think it gets bad [chuckling]. I think subtlety causes a lot of problems. And it’s basically if you’re being subtle about because you’re too afraid to actually say what you mean, but there are situations in which someone might want to say something that their story doesn’t support. That is the main issue. I’ve seen that happen. Where someone is like, “I really want to make a commentary about the healthcare system. That’s very important to me”, and it’s like, “okay that’s cool, but your story is about solving a dragon murder”. It’s not necessarily impossible to work in a healthcare metaphor in there, but when you just have a character start talking about healthcare stuff, it’s like, “what does this have to do with the story we’re doing right now”?
Wes: I really need to hear about a dragon healthcare system [laughing], immediately.
Oren: If you’re doing a story about a healthcare problem, I say, be as blatant as you want. I think being more blatant is good in that context, but I do encounter people who just have something they want to say. That has nothing to do with the actual story that they wrote. And it was just like, “I’m sorry, your story just doesn’t support that message that you want to have”.
Chris: I would say that this is actually often a show versus tell a problem. Where when you have a message, you want that message built into the story, so that you are showing the message. And if you have somebody monologuing about it, you are telling the message. If you’re showing it, you shouldn’t need to tell. And it’s when you do lots of telling, that people start rolling their eyes. Right? Cause that’s boring. I think a lot of things that feel heavy handed are, it’s either that is happening, or the audience simply disagrees with the message. In which case it’s always going to feel heavy handed to them because they don’t like that it’s there. [chuckle]
Oren: For example, if you wanted to be really blatant about a healthcare story, you could have a story about someone who is trying to prevent a politician from privatizing public healthcare. And in that context, you would have lots of reasons for your characters to talk about the problems with private health care and the advantages of universal healthcare and such and such. And if you do that, if that’s your context and that’s what you want, then do it. Some people will call you heavy handed because they disagree with your message. But they’re always going to say that if your message is clear and they disagree with it. This is only going to be an issue if you have a story that doesn’t support that, but then you just have characters suddenly talking about the problems with Medicare for all versus the Obamacare marketplace. And it’s like, “This story doesn’t even take place in the real world. What are these characters talking about?”
Wes: So cutting anything from your manuscript can just be incredibly difficult, but it is a necessary part of revision. And like we said, look to what you can do to get this manuscript done and off to publishing or wherever it’s destiny awaits. And don’t forget that cutting doesn’t mean taking out the things love. Killing your darlings is not about confronting the parts of your soul and saying, “no, you’re worthless. You’re not worthy of this text.”
No, no, no. It’s about like Chris and Oren said, finding the things that you really care about in your story, and if you can center them and make them an integral part of that story, keep them. If not, know that those are things you care about, but gently remove them and perhaps revisit that in a different story. Killing your darlings in scare quotes here, is really more about sharpening the focus of your story. And if you can bring the darlings into the limelight. Great. If not. They can wait backstage.
Oren: Alright, well, that’s a good note to end this podcast on. For those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants dot com.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, he is a fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at the Rambo geeks dot com. We’ll talk to you all next week.
Voiceover: If you have a story that’s not quite working, we’re here to help. We offer consulting and editing services on Mythcreants dot com [Song out]
Voiceover: This has been the mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme, The Princess Who Saved Herself, by Jonathan Colton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?