Fire Your Darlings, Don’t Kill Them

I am currently away on an Internet Vacation. I’ll be back online on March 31. I have written one new post for each day of my Vacation so that folks don’t miss me too much while I am gone. But keep in mind, these posts have been scheduled ahead of time. Feel free to comment, as always, but note that since I am not checking email, I will likely not be replying to comments until I am back from my Vacation on March 31. With that said, enjoy!

Each time I hear Hemingway’s famous quip, “kill your darlings,” I cringe a little inside. I do this, not because the advice is no good. The advice is very good. But I believe writers too often consider it in too literal a manner and so hesitate to take the necessary action. The necessary action in question is cutting from a story the stuff that doesn’t work, the stuff that isn’t story. It took me a long time to learn how to do this, and I wish I could have learned it sooner. Part of the problem is that as a writer, you sometimes fall in love with your own words. You’ll spin a wonderful turn of phrase, and then hesitate to kill it because you like the sound of it. You are not thinking objectively, you are not thinking about the story. But you can’t help it. You don’t want to lose the line, so err toward leaving it in. It might be a great line, but as far as the story goes, it just doesn’t belong. The same is true for a paragraph, a scene, or even a chapter.

My problem with the “kill your darlings” philosophy is that it is too often interpreted as a kind of hard-hearted excision. The only thing to do is to delete the line (or paragraph, scene or chapter) and lose that little gem. You sacrifice for the greater good of the story.

What occurred to me many years ago was: Why kill your darlings? Why not simply fire them. I’ve written about this before in other contexts. Rather than thinking of killing your darlings as losing them forever, simply excise them from the manuscript and move them into a “darlings” file. I call this my “deleted scenes” file and I have one for every story I’ve ever written. This worked like magic for me. Once I started doing this–moving the parts of the story that didn’t work out of the story and into the “darlings” file–I instantly stopped hesitating on my cutting. It became much easier knowing that I wasn’t actually losing the words I’d written. Instead, I was firing them, so to speak. And like a fired actor who goes onto do wonders in another role, those fired passages could be used again in some other story where there work better.

These days, I don’t delete anything I write. In part, this is because I’m obsessive about data and analytics, but with respect to my writing, it is incredibly useful for me to see what didn’t work. I can learn a lot from the stuff that I might otherwise have highlighted and deleted from the digital ether forever.

There are plenty of ways you can do this. In Scrivener, I have a fiction template that contains a “Deleted Scenes” folder. In Google Docs, I’ve modified an existing template that has a “Deleted Scenes” section at the end of the document. The same could be done in Word or even a simple text editor. It works best in Scrivener and Google Docs where you can do things to “compile” a manuscript that leaves out certain parts of it. But with a little effort, it could work anyway. And the benefit of this idea, for me, was crucial in my ability to be able to cut what needed cutting from my stories. Maybe it will work for you, too.