Thursday, June 18, 2009

Killing Your Darlings in Art and in Life

Elizabeth Zelvin

“Kill your darlings” is one of those writing maxims that becomes both more comprehensible and more possible as a writer matures through the process of writing, revising, submitting to critique, sending out to agents and editors, weathering rejections, revising some more, getting an offer from a publisher, weathering the editorial process, getting published, weathering reviews and emails from the reading public—and going through the whole thing again in a never-ending process. Surely most novelists fall in love with their first first draft. And few writers, especially the vast majority in the proverbial and not-quite-dead-yet midlist, can avoid having to take a hatchet to some of their most cherished passages.

I fought tooth and nail against killing my darlings when I first made contact with other mystery writers and started sending out the manuscript that became my debut novel. Gradually, as I kept writing, I began to trust that if I deleted a clever turn of phrase, there were plenty left on the page—and more where that came from (my unconscious, the Muse, a Higher Power, or whatever). As I practiced my craft and became more open to critique, I got a much better sense of what was too much. With experience, I put a lot less on the page and write a lot tighter first draft than I used to. I also do a lot more revision than I used to. I took out the first draft of a short story the other day with a view to working on it for submission to an anthology. Before I knew it, I had my pen in hand and scribbled and slashed all over the first two pages. When I thought about it, I realized that’s what I do now. My writing process has changed. Now, I know the first draft is always provisional. It’s okay, and some of it may be great—but when I look at it again, I’ll see many ways to make it better.

I’ve talked about killing my darlings in my writing before. But only recently have I realized that the capacity to kill my darlings is improving not only in my art but in my life as a whole. I’ve always had a fast mouth, and I can be very clever. But maturity is revealing how to be tactful as well, and it’s making my life a lot easier. I’ve heard it said—as a spiritual practice, not a literary technique—that it’s a good idea to ask yourself, before letting fly with a witticism or a zinger or even a strong opinion, the following questions: “Does this need to be said? Do I need to be the one to say it? Does it need to be said in this way?” (In my case, a useful corollary: “Does it need to be said more than once?”) I may have the clever thought in mind—but I don’t have to jump in and say it. Killing those darlings instead of letting them fly to hurt or anger others has strengthened my relationships, saved me from making enemies, and kept me out of many an online flame war.

And here’s the payoff: I can create a character who has more trouble killing her darlings than I do. Barbara, the world-class codependent in my mystery series, gets to open her mouth and utter all the zingers, jokes, and tactless observations that I’ve had to deny myself. It gets her in trouble—but what good is a character who doesn’t get in trouble? Her efforts to zip the lip and mind her own business are endearing, but they always fail. And if what she says would be better left unsaid—hey, don’t blame me. I’m just the writer. They’re Barbara’s darlings.

1 comment:

Sandra Parshall said...

My first drafts are not fit for human consumption and seldom contain any darlings to kill. I enjoy rewriting, though, and that's when I have to watch out -- I become more expansive in my language as I fill out scenes, develop characters, and complicate the story, and excesses are likely to creep in. Then I need another trip through the book with a machete in hand. Still trying to learn how to restrain myself from speaking my mind when it would be wise to stay silent. :-)