When You Kill Your Darlings, Save Them

If you have ever looked for advice about editing, the phrase “kill your darlings” has likely crossed your path. The phrase is attributed widely, but probably harkens back to Arthur Qullier-Couch, who exhorted writers to “Murder your darlings,” in his 1914 lecture On Style.

I prefer the advice from Kurt Vonnegut in How To Write With Style because it is more explicit and less open for argument about what it means.

Have guts to cut

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Kurt Vonnegut

On a related note, this week, I was reading Roz Morris’ Nail Your Novel and Chuck Wendig’s 250 Things You Should Know About Writing and came across what amounts to the same piece of advice in both books: save what you cut. Morris advocates saving everything in an “Outtakes” file. Wendig’s instruction is more brutal: “Gotta Abandon Your Baby? Butcher Him For Spare Parts.”

The combination of “be willing to cut” and “save everything” proved useful in my work this week. Two years ago, I abandoned a novel that deals with the same themes as my current project. The first project was a realistic YA and the active one is a middle grade fantasy. In both, the protagonist is a gifted girl coming to see that her uniqueness has benefits and is not merely a burden.

I abandoned the first project because I couldn’t fix plot problems in the second half. In my current project, I have been struggling to establish a realistic world before I shatter the illusion of normalcy and introduce magical elements.

A solution to the problems of both books emerged this week. After ruthless cutting, I realized that despite superficial differences the second novel essentially places the protagonist of the first in a new environment.

As soon as this became clear, I started the mental work of combining the realistic part of my first novel with the fantasy of the second. Between the two manuscripts, I have good work on character development and world building in both the realistic and fantasy worlds, and the elements of a plot that will force my theme to the fore. To make it work will take massive revision, but my instinct is that a mash-up of the two stories will be stronger than either story individually.

Thank goodness I saved everything and have both hardcopy and the digital file of the abandoned novel waiting for me when I get home from my vacation. I am anxious to start butchering that baby for spare parts. Talk to me in six months time and I may be calling it my “first draft” instead of my “abandoned” novel.

I’m exhilarated by this new use for work that felt wasted.

Have you ever gone back to an old failure and discovered material in it that you could use? What was it like to realize that old project was viable in some way after all?

2 thoughts on “When You Kill Your Darlings, Save Them

  1. Patrick Ross says:

    As a reporter, my favorite lines often were taken out, because like Vonnegut said they didn’t advance the story. I did the same thing to other reporters as an editor.

    Recently I turned in a personal essay to my MFA instructor that opens with a recollection. It was actually remembering that event that led to me writing the essay. But it underwent several revisions, and my instructor (perceptively) wondered if the recollection even fits now with the essay, let alone whether the essay should open with it. I’d add to this discussion that sometimes it takes an outsider’s eyes to know which darlings to kill. (And by killing, of course, put aside for use in another possible project.)

  2. […] last year, but I didn’t want to start a new project and my work-in-progress was in a stage of revision that didn’t fit with the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. So, I skipped […]

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