The Myth of Killing Your Darlings

So recently my manuscript went through a huge revision. And I found myself confronted with a revision rule that I never really understood: Kill Your Darlings.

I thought the rule meant that you should evaluate those lines and paragraphs that you love, the ones that are achingly funny, descriptive or beautiful, and  question whether they should be in the book at all.  I thought that since good writing is supposed to be seamless, invisible, that it shouldn't be so precious that it appears so obviously WRITTEN.

So those words had to go.  After all, they're just words. Kill them off.

I always thought this seemed kind of harsh.  I mean there's probably a reason you love that funny dialog exchange or lyrical descriptive paragraph so much, right?

Of course there is.  So I'd like to propose a new rule:  Nothing is sacred.

Because I think when we talk about killing our darlings, we're not saying that all those gorgeous lines and poignant moments in your scenes are overwritten and need to go.  Most of them can probably even stay. Some of them definitely should stay or you will be in danger of revising the voice right out of your manuscript. The hard part is deciphering the good darlings from the bad.  And to do that you need to believe that they are all expendable, especially if they fail to fit within the overall story arc, weigh down the manuscript, slow down the pace or take us on tangents that go nowhere.  In other words, we're only killing the darlings that don't move the plot forward, help develop the character, or serve a purpose beyond being precious.  As long as we understand that nothing is sacred, we are free to cut away in service to the story. 

When I looked at it from this perspective, with a willingness to cut anything and everything that was negatively impacting my story arc, it somehow became less about exorcising pieces of my heart from the page and murdering my own, and more about writing a great story.

And while I could be ruthless when it came to cutting whole chapters, characters or plot lines, I still found it much, much harder to say goodbye to a few precious lines or exchanges.  So I confess.  I didn't actually kill them.  I found them another home.  Some of them ended up in other scenes.  Some are in a folder awaiting placement in another book.  But I couldn't bring myself to kill them.

After all, they are adorable.  Darling, even.

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