Murder your darlings
Yip. That one. Attributed of late to Mr Stephen King, Wikipedia holds Arthur Quiller-Couch responsible. A literary critic from the early nineteen hundreds. But what exactly does it mean?
Rob Parnell describes it as anything that stands out as ‘good writing’. For the reason that it will break the fictive dream. This squares with the Elmore Leonard dictum that
‘if it sounds like writing, I re-write it.‘
Now as someone who has wittered on about the self-conscious storyteller, I guess it would be natural to assume I would be on board with this.
The ‘fictive dream’ seems to me to be no more nor less than suspension of disbelief and I do think that is an essential part of good storytelling.
We all write stuff we think sounds great, but the question I would always ask is, does it work in situ? Does it develop the moment? Does it fit the character, story, time and feel? If not, no matter how pretty you think it is, get shot of it. Anything that advertises its artificiality needs a damn good reason to justify its place. Of course sometimes it is very clever, elegant writing – no one is ever aiming for ugly and stupid, so it can be hard. Kill your darlings. That is how I always interpreted it. As referring to the act itself, erasing something you have lovingly crafted out of existence.
But Rob qualifies his ‘fictive dream’ with the comment
The theory is that writing you’re particularly proud of is probably self-indulgent and will stand out‘
Your darlings for him is good writing. This is backed up by Q himself, who states,
‘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.’
My instinct is his tongue was jammed in his cheek, a bon mot suggesting most published writers might do well to check their ego and if not, his services were always available. However, like a game of Chinese whispers, if wit were intended, it got lost. At least in Diana Athills estimation,
‘Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect – it’s the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for’.
But even in her phrasing I detect a whiff of clever crafting. I can’t help but feel the whole field stinks of pointless rhetoric.
Writers like words; writers like people who like their words. And they seek with every word to add to this number. Divorcing ego from work is not only likely impossible it does feel counterproductive.
I have to admit to tiring of the endless self depreciation of people who survived to publication in an industry that they themselves describe as being a gauntlet of rejection and debasement. That in fact the most defining factor in surviving is believing in yourself even when others won’t back you, tell you as Rudyard Kipling can testify ‘that you simply do not know how to use the English language’
As Hemingway once wrote,
‘you see it’s awfully hard to talk or write about your own stuff because if it is any good you yourself know about how good it is — but if you say so yourself you feel like a shit’
In the end we can only ever really speak from our own point of view. What we have experienced, seen, observed. I’ve never known smug glee. There are parts of my writing I like, some I love and much I despair of. Yet when I edit I very much try to go with my gut. Too many times I have returned to a line – sometimes a lovely line- that I knew even as I was writing it, didn’t fit. Sometimes it can be hard to kill, but not because of smug pride, but uncertainty, fear that I will take the wrong thing. That one missing sentence might be the one missing element I needed. Ridiculous..yip. But it is worth noting, when considering taking advice, that oftentimes I wrote it because I thought it was what others expected me to say.