Kill Your Darlings

“Kill your darlings,” is a quote by Stephen King. No, it was William Faulkner. No, it was Agatha Christie. No, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald. Well, of course, they all said it, but the first use of the construction appeared in print a hundred years ago by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who urged wannabe writers to murder their darlings. (Quiller-Couch was the inspiration for Rat in “The Wind in the Willows.” It’s amazing the things you can find out with a bit of research!)

By definition, darlings — those parts of our manuscripts that we love even when they don’t advance the story — are painful to kill, but some are more painful than others. Originally, More Deaths Than One was designed to be a series of stories told to Bob Stark (so named to remind me that he seems an ordinary fellow, but is stark of speech). It was through listening to the various stories that he was to discover the truth about himself, but though the idea had merit, the first draft was terrible. Bob barely surfaced in his own story, and the storytellers themselves seemed disembodied. I rewrote the book several times, trying to find the right way to tell the story, but it wasn’t until the fourth draft when I gave Bob a love interest, a waitress he met at a coffee shop, that the story took off. He had someone to butt heads with, someone to ooh and aah over his achievements, someone to be horrified at what had been done to him.

After the story took focus, the original idea of Bob learning about himself from tales told to him had to be scrapped, and some of those tales — those darlings — had to be scrapped. It was hard to get rid of those sections, but I did it for the sake of the story.

In my soon-to-be-published novel, I didn’t have any darlings — at least, I don’t think I do — because as I was writing the book, I remained focused on what I needed to accomplish. This is the first book I wrote with a theme in mind, and that helped considerably. If something didn’t further illuminate the theme of freedom (how much freedom we’re willing to give up for security, and how much security we’re willing to give up for freedom) I didn’t even bother to develop the scene.

Not everyone is able recognize let along kill their darlings, especially if those darlings are the whole reason for writing the book. For example, I just finished reading a novel that had been given to me by a friend of the author. It was readable, but his darlings destroyed the story. The book reads as if it’s a roman à clef, a story of the author’s struggle with alcoholism, which would be fine if that’s what he wanted. But apparently, he also wanted to write a political thriller, which gave the book a rather strange duality, as if two different stories had been cobbled together.

Authors, of course, can write whatever they wish, with unkilled darlings galore. But once they decide to write a particular type of story, they have to focus on the story they want to write, and to edit out anything that doesn’t fit. (Like a sculptor, chiseling away at all of the marble that doesn’t benefit the artist’s vision.)

Because the first half of this particular book was all about the personal story, the second half with the political intrigue was shortchanged. The author relied too much on current events to piece the story together, which kept him from having to fully develop the president or the situation he was involved with. The author just assumed everyone would know. Even worse, there was no conflict in the political part of the story, just internal vacillation as the character tried to decided if he wanted to finish the course of action he had started.

The author would have been so much better off using the personal part to add depth to the political part. Also, adding conflict to the political intrigue would have turned it into the thriller the blurb described.

The only reason this matters to me is that I read the book. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have cared because I wouldn’t know.

I suppose more than anything, this book is a reminder to myself to kill my darlings or, even better, don’t bring them to life in the first place.


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

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