In all my writing courses, there are two pieces of advice that bubble up again and again:
show, don’t tell, and
kill your little darlings.
The first piece of advice is exactly what it says: as a writer, I need to show you, through rich descriptive writing, an emotion, a scene, an event. I should not list off the physical characteristics of a person or tell you my emotional response – I should show you.
I poured my tea. The sound was surprising.
I heard the tea pouring into the cup, filling the silence of the house. I had made a thousand cups, but that was the first time I noticed the auditory beauty of the ritual. I smelled the mint of the tea blend and was mesmerized by the spin and whirl of hot water into a cup, like an eddy in a pool of still water.
(Hopefully you ‘saw’ the tea more clearly in the second example.)
The second piece of advice sounds a bit like a call to action against someone we love – kill your little darlings. As a matter of fact, the first person giving this writing advice stated it even more violently:
If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings. (Cornish writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, pen-name Q)
Stephen King, being Stephen King, states, “…kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Kill three times in a sentence is rather severe.
But what the heck are one’s “darlings”?
When writing, often in early drafts, there can be some really brilliant phrases or single words that come out of one’s brain, through our bodies and on to the page. And we are convinced, completely and utterly, that our work will be diminished without those words.
Judith Claire Mitchell, author of Reunion of Ghosts, sadly parted with a self-description her main character used, stating she was “negligible as an eyelash”. Mitchell was deeply saddened by the loss of these four words, but less so when she saw another writer use them. In the end, her darlings were apparently not so darling.
Now, four words, not such a big deal, maybe. Perhaps. But some people ‘kill’ entire pages, entire bits of stories, entire characters, settings, etc. Because for whatever reason, those pieces of writing simply do not work in the larger piece.
One of my instructors equated the idea of having to make these type of choices to knitting. You have knitted a beautiful sweater and proudly show it to a friend. The friend admires the work and all the fine stitches. But then, the friend points out how the neon green is gorgeous, but it doesn’t seem to go with the rest of the overall piece.
Knitting means unravelling all the work after that neon green section and reworking the sweater. Often, taking something out of a piece of writing is the same: the writer Marian Palaia (The Given World) tells of having to not only cut a few words, but a third of her first draft, including a main character, Cam. The ultimate kicker is that the first word of the novel at that point was “Cam”.
That certainly would be a large chunk of unravelling.
Sometimes little darlings are truly ‘little’ – a word or phrase here or there. But when you have fallen in love with the sound of those words or phrases, it feels impossible to imagine your story without them.
There is a solution – and that is also something I hear with each class I take. Create a file for your ‘little darlings’ – whether they are words, or phrases, or entire stories. And kill them for the sake of your story.
A better analogy might be that you are engaging in literary cryogenics – merely putting them on ice until the right environment comes along to resuscitate them.
I have a file of little darlings – and big darlings. Stories and paragraphs, sentences and words. They lie awaiting the day when they too can shine.