For this article in The Millions, the novelist Chloe Benjamin asked 5 writers, me included, to share our thoughts about a painful aspect of the revision process, namely “killing your darlings,” i.e., the inevitable moment when you have to take your work in progress and cut the parts you originally thought were its best moments–maybe a character you loved but who no longer is needed, maybe some prose you thought was over-the-top brilliant that, in the light of day, turns out to be embarrassingly self-indulgent. It’s the worst–and you can hear the lingering pain in each of the writers’ self-deprecating and bemused reminisces.
Kill Your Darlings: Five Writers on the Cutting Room Floor
“I did the right thing, erasing the four words from my story. I have been churlish and bitter about it ever since.”
As Edan Lepucki pointed out, writers are a self-flagellating bunch: difficult to satisfy, prone to swinging wildly between absurd faith and intense self-criticism. (Or is that just me?) So you can hardly blame us for wanting to hold tight to our darlings — the favored image, the pet sentence — when we finally get them on paper. And yet, and yet — writers from Anton Chekov to Stephen King agree that one’s most precious writing often has to be cut, either because of the fact of its preciousness or because it doesn’t serve the larger work.
Having killed more than a few darlings myself—including an entire novel—I asked five contemporary writers about the most painful time they cut a piece of writing. The truth is that the kill-your-darlings phenomenon is a little bit like a lust-driven love affair: no matter how painful it is to say goodbye, I’ve heard few people say that it wasn’t the right choice, or even that they truly miss their darling once it’s gone. But I keep a graveyard document on my computer just in case. You never know when a dead darling will be called upon and brought to life again.
1. Judith Claire Mitchell, author of A Reunion of Ghosts
I’ve had to kill plenty of darlings over the years, but though the deletions may come with fleeting twinges of pain, I’ve mostly taken pleasure in making my work leaner. This is what professional writers do, after all: they edit, they revise, they trim. Once, though, I had to cut a simile from a story I was working on, and the fact that I still remember those four little excised words — my despondent protagonist described herself as “negligible as an eyelash” — reveals how much it hurt to give them up. But before I’d finished my own story, I read a newly published story by a writer I admired, and there in one of her perfect paragraphs was my simile, word for word. She’d not only come up with the same exact metaphor, she’d come up with and published it first.
I tried to convince myself we could both use the simile. It wasn’t as if I’d stolen it from this other writer, not even subconsciously. And the chances that anyone in the world (where literary short fiction is not exactly giving Harry Potter a run for his money) would read both our stories, much less read them in such temporal proximity and so darned carefully they’d notice we used the same simile was…well, as negligible as an eyelash. In the end, though, I knew I’d lost the race, and I did the right thing, erasing the four words from my story. I have been churlish and bitter about it ever since.
2. Rebecca Dinerstein, author of The Sunlit Night
The first draft of my novel went heavy on Norse mythology. Even though my male protagonist Yasha was a 17-year-old Russian boy, I thought of him as a version of Thor. I wanted Yasha’s father, Vassily, to resemble Thor’s father, Odin, the All-Father of the Norse universe who famously rides an eight-legged horse and walks around with a raven on each shoulder. I hoped to connect the fabulous, exotic heroes of those myths to my humble, bewildered characters. But I wound up with a total mess. I had hammers and horses all over the place and I couldn’t say why. It started to feel like scaffolding, or a gimmick, that my book needed to shed. In my second draft, I let Yasha be Yasha and cut back on the Thor. But I strengthened Yasha with Thor’s sensibility: I kept that mightiness, that inspiration in mind as I steered Yasha through his dilemmas and into moments of bravery. And happily, the Norse gods did make it into one climactic scene: a midnight funeral at a Viking museum.
3. Tanwi Nandini Islam, author of Bright Lines
When it came time for me to revise my novel, I killed all the darlings in Part II, 150 pages worth. Instead of reckoning with my characters’ loss and the aftermath of an intense family trip, I had flashed forward a decade, absolving myself of the inner work that was necessary for telling this story. My editor saw the heart of Bright Lines: a triad of POVs that connects the experience of two daughters, one adopted, one biological, and a father confronting his weakness. I cut some of the more dramatic turns in the novel — characters killed, lecherous uncles, good-for-nothing dads — these were shorn. The rough-hewn forms of these ideas took shape, and what resulted was a process of fine-tuning, excavating, and exploring my characters’ inner desires in the span of one year. During this time, I was in acting classes, too. I suppose this was a respite from writing as well as a way to strengthen my storytelling. In class, we’d ask: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? And as I finishing revising my novel, the choice to kill my darlings led me to write a fully-realized story that looks to a historical past, with an unspoken destination that comes decades later.
4. Rufi Thorpe, author of The Girls from Corona del Mar
For me, the hardest darling to kill was in my first novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar. In it, one of the characters is hit over the head with a gnome statue, enters a coma, and upon awakening is obsessed with the genocide of the American Indian. In the original version of the book, there was an entire 40-page section that followed that character into her coma where she went on a kind of guided vision quest regarding the nature of cruelty. It was supposed to be both a historical recap of the less clean parts of American history, as well as a meditation on those wrongs we commit that cannot be taken back or set right, even as there is a moral imperative to at least try.
My agent insisted it must be cut, I argued it could be trimmed, but in the end, I agreed with her and cut the whole thing. Still, it completed the book thematically and symbolically in a way that was painful to lose. Don’t even talk to my husband about it. “It was a tragedy!” he shouts whenever it comes up. “That was the best part of the book!” And even though it wasn’t the best part of the book, I love him dearly for saying so.
5. Marian Palaia, author of The Given World
When I was first asked if I might write a short piece on having had, at some point, to jettison a favorite character (to kill off one of my darlings, in the parlance), I couldn’t think of one off the top of my head, but figured I could come up with something. Then I sent an early draft of my new novel to my agent. Ha! The joke is on me. The universe aligns, and it is looking as though I am needing to cut, from a so-far 175-page manuscript, about 1/3, in the form of Cam. He is not only a main character, but “Cam” is the first word in the book; he is the first person we meet, aside from the narrator, who introduces him to us. The reason he needs to go, or to at least not be a main character anymore, is because he is — not to put too fine a point on it — one tragic figure too many, in a book already full (enough) of tragic figures. And he is Haitian, meaning he has an accent, and he suffers from PTSD and (probably) Gulf War Syndrome (from our first adventure there), and then there is the matter of the earthquake occurring in the course of the book’s time frame, and the fact that he is Haitian in Missoula, Mont., and, well, maybe you can see where this thing could go completely off the rails and he could become somewhat cartoonish, which would just add more tragedy to the whole affair.
The thing is, I knew he was risky when I first began to write him, but there he was, and he was pretty insistent on being there, shy guy that he is, and he is a real person, in an alternate sphere, and his story is so compelling it won’t leave me, but it is for another time, I think. For another place. Or maybe it is his story alone — compelling in the way real life can be, and not transferable to fiction — and I have no business sharing it. We’ll see. And I will miss him. Unless he moves to San Francisco and meets up with my protagonist there, and is not such a fish out of water, but there will still be the same issues, so we will just have to see. Meantime, I am going in. And changing the first word of my book. I will find out what sort of cascading effect that has. I have just arrived in Montana, the place I seem to want every morning to get up and write, and have all summer, unless we catch on fire, to finish this draft. Better get started.
Image Credit: Flickr/Maarten Van Damme.