Sunday, September 19, 2010

Writer's Weights: Kill Your Darlings Challenge (WW3)

Want to exercise your writing chops? This week's Writer's Weights challenge focuses on the editing process. Answers to the challenge will be posted on Friday. If you use this exercise, post a link in the comments, and I'll update the post with your link. Everyone is welcome to participate.

Kill Your Darlings Challenge

William Faulkner supposedly said that one must kill their darlings. The intention and this is that a writer gets attached with a particular turn of phrase, scene, cleverness, joke and doesn't want to drop this from their writing and as a result weakens the overall effort.

A friend of mine who recently finished an MFA, commented about how difficult it was to get his stories past his adviser who required every word and sentence to perform more than one purpose. I like this idea and it is a thought that one can consider during revision. A scene in a novel that is just there to lengthen time and therefore increase suspense, maybe a good scene to consider chopping. However, if that scene does more than that, perhaps provide a reveal that explains why a character works the way the character does that can strengthen the book.

In a smaller arena, the idea of kill your darlings can apply to specific details that exist in your stories. I frequently get told that my stories create vivid imagery, but one thing I learned in poetry is that you can overdo the imagery. Instead of the canvas dripping with caked on paint, a sparse line here or there can create a more powerful response in the viewer.

The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less where one or more darlings have been excised from the story. Include one of the darlings you removed in an addendum or comment on the piece. The theme for this week is: Damascus steel (feel free to simplify this to a simple knife).

Further reading:

My favorite article that I found when looking for topics around this isn't exactly on killing your darling. More, it's on the creative process and letting oneself have the freedom to fail. The idea is to not be so precious, that feels like it has a relation to killing your darlings, but isn't entirely the same thing. See Teresa brazen's Podcast with Scott Berkun: Don't Be So Precious. I particularly liked the reference to Buddhist mandalas to describe the fleetingness of art and how one must be prepared to rule in that art and ways. I couldn't find a youtube video I liked of mandalas, but can recommend the Wikipedia article.

Brenda Coulter has a good article (How to Kill Your Darlings Without Remorse) on killing your darlings and particularly provides some specific methods that you can use in the process.

JA Konrath had a brief article on his webpage (it disappeared shortly after it originally played, so it may actually reappear later this week, or may have been removed permanently) that discussed killing your darlings and in particular the benefits of having someone outside the author who can provide a balanced judge of whether that darling should get hung.


  1. My mom was a reading and grammar teacher and tutoring specialist. She was and still is a freelance editor. She was my first editor.

    Oh the rows she and I would have when she wanted me to remove one my darlings from a story or novel I was working on. Those things were not just my pet elements; they were what I was personally convinced made the stories work. To remove them would destroy the stories.

    At this point in my life, I'm happy to report that I now realize that what's important for a story is not what works for the writer but what works for the reader. That's been an incredibly liberating experience for me, and with few exceptions I can look at feedback that aims at my darlings and accept it graciously and follow through. This has created an internal alert for me that when there's something that I'm *that* attached in my writing, I probably need to give it a second, third, or fourth look.

  2. I thought that the darlings in question were characters only... Had no idea that it could mean so much. It's been eye-opening, but I have to say that these repeating elements can be considered your signature and part of your voice, so maybe consistent removal might not be the best idea. Yes, over-reliance is bad, but not overall removal.

  3. @Harry, my concern is that I am too "scatter-shot" in that I put in too much description or too many elements and that yes, you could say it is my style; but I'm not sure that style is "best" for me. Hopefully, I'll get a couple of comments on the darlings removed that will help me judge better for myself whether I'm making the correct judgement on killing my darlings.

  4. @Nevets, it must have been a strange situation to be in to have someone close to you critiquing your darlings. The closest I have had to people critiquing "my darlings" is poetry instructors in college and to some degree I could ignore them (at the risk of my grade ;) Of course, one of them encouraged me. He cared more about the sound of the poetry and encouraged random connections between images.

    I don't find myself necessarily overattached to my darlings; however, I'm not sure where my darlings lie. Therefore, my goal this week is to have a search and destroy mission. Darlings beware.