Don’t Murder Your Darlings

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Photo by Andalucía Andaluía on Unsplash

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch was quoted as saying, “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 — wholeheartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

For decades, this axiom has been touted by many successful writers. So it stands to reason a lot of us perk up and pay attention when they offer us tips on how to become better writers.

Years ago, as a plebe writer, my first attempt at a novel was tentative and insecure at best.

Horrid is another accurate description.

My writing was chock full of crutch sentences and bloated with words I thought necessary to improve what I had yet to admit was just plain old weak writing.

I had no voice to speak of and I was about as tone deaf as they come.

Logically, it came to me I should take the advice of writers whom I adored when it came to crafting my own story.

At that point in my writing career I was willing to try anything.

Murder my darlings, they told me. Kill your darlings, every single one of them, they advised.

Desperate to improve my writing, I armed myself and began hunting those darlings down.

Oh wow, they were such easy targets. There they were, trapped in the pages of the manuscript, caught unaware as I began to slash at them.

My Katana blade (delete key) gleaned wickedly in the light of my writing lamp, ink-blood smearing my hands as I murdered darling after darling.

I was crazed, caught up in my own word genocide.

I slashed and hacked like a samurai warrior high on methamphetamine.

I assaulted words, sentences and paragraphs, even entire chapters.

Kill them, murder them all!

When the carnage was over I was spent, near exhaustion.

Surveying what was left, I expected to see the wondrous beauty of a polished work, a gorgeous butterfly my murderous efforts had freed from such an unsightly chrysalis.

But the butterfly never materialized. In fact, the chrysalis was even more unsightly.

The result of murdering all my darlings had drastically changed my novel. Before my onslaught at least my work offered a fairly smooth read, although composed with roads meandering all over the countryside.

Now, it was little more than a ragtag collection of ill-maintained, bone-jarring potholes.

There were so many holes in fact, I realized it would take me and the Army Corp of Engineers years to repair all of them.

Back then I didn’t have the phone number of the Army Corp of Engineers handy. Still don’t by the way, but I doubt they could have helped much.

They do great with dams and levees, but I doubt they could have helped me plug the holes in my Swiss cheese novel.

As I read the malodorous mess I’d created by my darling genocide, something caught my eye.

A survivor.

A darling I had missed, quivering between the pot holes, hiding behind a cluster of nouns and adjectives.

Instead of swiping at it with my sword, I took pity on it.

Though portly and bloated with so many words its very fabric was stretched to breaking, it had a rare beauty to it.

It offered me a warm inviting feeling as it huddled in fear on the pages.

We gazed at one another for the longest time.

I remember thinking to myself the surviving darling wasn’t too bad to look at. It just needed to trim down to its fighting weight.

I remember telling myself with a little diet and exercise this darling might just be what’s necessary to move the story forward, maybe even become a memorable passage to the reader.

I’d already attempted mass murder and discovered I was not cut out to indiscriminately cut out. So why not try to resurrect my deceased darlings one by one and force them through the rigors of extreme exercise and dieting?

Maybe I could help them trim down, get lean mean and svelte. Then maybe, just maybe, they could carry the story forward.

And after many months of work, carry the story forward they did.

Together, my oh so healthy darlings and I completed our first novel.

When we did we all celebrated with a little tofu and sparkling water.

Okay, that’s not entirely accurate.

If you must know, I had a cheeseburger, fries and a soda.

I put my darlings on a diet not me.

Let’s keep in touch: paul@pgbarnett.com

Written by

A published author enjoying married Texas bliss. Dog person living with cats. A writer of Henry James' stories. Featured In MuckRack. Top Writer In Fiction.

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