Stick Figures

Delete Your Darlings…Or Save Them in Another Document Because They’re Really Annoying

imageYou may already be familiar with the Faulkner quote: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings,” but I bet you seldom find yourself shouting “Kill!” into the open book before you.  Your sudden ire is unfortunate since you picked this book to help you relax and get away from your own crazy writing for a few hours.  Overall, the book isn’t bad.  It’s just…this scene.

You read on, growing more and more confused because—over the course of this lovely scene where two characters are sharing a pizza or whatever—nothing is happening. Sure, there’s dialogue and the author might argue some mild character development, but…no.  The whole thing is nothing more than an excuse for two people to make eyes at each other and joke about cheese.

Okay, so maybe it doesn’t count as a “scene” because there is no goal, conflict, or disaster…but it’s not a “sequel” either.  A sequel is the aftermath of a scene and includes a reaction, dilemma, and decision.  None of that exists in happy-yummy-pizza world.  The only reason these pages haven’t gone up in a glorious blaze is because the author can’t let them go.  Then again, maybe the author isn’t aware of his or her own shortcomings.

Three things can help with this:

  1. reading a lot of good books on the craft of writing
  2. reading a lot of well-written books that exhibit these features (and books that fail to)
  3. critique, revise, rinse, repeat

If you are a writer working on a manuscript everyday, you are probably in love with it.  That said, you need to accept that the book you’re writing may never meet with more than a few sets of eyes.  But even if your book baby never “makes it,” tangling with the words can turn that project into a really good learning experience—a stepping stone on the road to possible success with a future book.  This only works, however, if your process improves.

You can learn a lot from looking at a published book, but keep in mind, you are looking at a product.   One cannot see the hours of planning, revision, reimagining, and re-revision the author went through to “finish” that product.  That’s why we need the three-punch combo listed above.  Read, apply, work toward mastery.

For most writers, the longest and most difficult part of the process is revision.  Be your own worst enemy first—tear your writing to pieces and make a better monster out of what’s left. Then, get others to go through it with their own sharp eyes.  Please, not your mom.  She would love that pizza scene.

Writers, do you have a particular “darling” you had a hard time deleting? I’d love to hear about it!

Readers, is there a particular not-scene in a book you’ve read recently that makes you want to scream?  Tell all below!

Michelle Joyce Bond


41 thoughts on “Delete Your Darlings…Or Save Them in Another Document Because They’re Really Annoying

  1. There are entire non event book categories 🙂
    1. Diplomat’s biographies
    2. Footballer’s biographies
    3. Horror fiction
    4. M&B
    5. Superhero comics
    Just to name a few

      1. By the way, apologies I write on a phone and my apostrophes and grammar, language generally, is all over the place 🙂 perhaps it is me, I am just blaming the phone today 🙂

  2. Basically I agree with you. I have a book coming out soon and I removed from it a chapter I particularly like. It slowed the narrative (which didn’t bother me much because things are too fast these days) and it was also somewhat whimsical. Despite which it was also the most autobiographical chapter in the book. I was thinking of making it available on my website, if I ever have one.

    ‘1.reading a lot of good books on the craft of writing’
    I am uneasy with this one. How many such books did Faulkner read, or any other ‘big name’ we could mention?

  3. In horror, sometimes we literally have to kill our darlings – (kill off a beloved character) to keep things interesting. I was once told, a happy ending is not always a good one – & a lot of times, it’s the most boring.

    People want to feel the heartache, the loss, sometimes it makes the tale more human.

    Wonderful post, Michelle. You never disappoint.

    1. You make a good point. I had focused more on the scene-writing aspect, but often there are entire characters that need to be executed and, subsequently, many of the scenes that go with them. I like the point you make about endings, too. Bittersweet endings are usually my favorite. 🙂 Thank you for commenting!

  4. Believe it or not, the current Stephen King book I’m reading could’ve used this advice in some places. It’s a very long book, and though while very good, there are scenes that don’t move the story forward much and some that even make me yawn. King is good at killing characters. He should’ve killed some of his ‘darlings’ too. 😉

    1. Ha–love it! I’ve had friends make similar comments about King’s writing which usually leads to the conversation of big-name authors and what they get away with. Thank you for sharing!

  5. I had a transsexual character. Don’t ask. There was a motif in my novel about gender confusion and breaking with social norms. About just being yourself. However, this character was too noisy for the novel. I just don’t think it fit overall in this novel. It was not the fact that he wore a dress, it was that his backstory was loud. It was hard for me to let him go.

    1. It’s good you were able to see the heart of your story and the fact that this character didn’t fit. Imagine an enthusiastic brass band playing whenever you come to this realization and follow through by hitting delete! 🙂

  6. Anne Rice is one of the writers I read A LOT of, but I have (on more than one occasion) just bypassed whole pages; skimming through to get to something less… well less?
    I feel the same way about Stephen King, that is why I have completed only one of his books.
    I hate how picky I am about reading, because I LOVE to read; but sometimes I will set a book down because I hit one of those spots that should have just been cut, and will not touch it again from anywhere between a few days to a few years.

  7. Good timing with this post. Love it.

    I’ve been struggling with that very same murderous (writerly) impulse lately. There are scenes I spend ages trying to force into the plot, just because I enjoyed writing the dialogue or mention some stupid historical fact I rather like. But those passages just bog everything down, and I’ll need to take a scythe to the word count enough as it is, without all the extra waffling on.

    I do find that reading books for the same age group has really helped me see what is and isn’t necessary. I’m writing for 9-12s, and Middle Grade fiction doesn’t need all the little details about how a character’s coffee spoon reminded him of his days reading T.S. Eliot in class with that pretty girl who turned out to break his heart which brought him to LA in the first place… etc, etc. If I’m way too in love with something I have to cut, I try to work in the key piece of dialogue, or whatever, into a different part of the book. Then if it doesn’t fit anywhere else, either, I’ll know it’s doomed.

    1. I just went delete crazy with a book I let rest for a while, and I was using a similar method. I cut all the text I thought I should remove permenantly but I still felt attached to, and then I pasted it into another file. If I feel that background information is integral to the plot at some point, I’ll add it back in, but the beginning of my manuscript is so much cleaner!

  8. When I finished my first manuscript, the one personal comment I got among the dozens of auto-rejections from agents was that I needed to work with an editor on pacing. After going back and forth for several months with a lovely but firm editor, my MS shrank by almost 10,000 words, most of which made up just the kind of scenes you talked about. After reading what I thought was the final product next to what turned out to be the actual final product, I was a little ashamed that I had let anyone read it.

  9. Letting go has become easier for me after getting a first book under my belt, but I remember that mental battle well. On the other hand I’ve always been overzealous about trashing an entire project because it isn’t ‘perfect’. And once those words are gone, they are gone.
    Enjoying your blog. 😉

    1. I’ve felt that doubt as well. Taking apart one sentence often leads to the paragraph and so on. Then I look at the clock and realize I should have gone to bed hours before. Thank goodness things usually look way better in the morning. Thank you for commenting! 🙂

  10. I loved this. Reminded me of the advice of my college lit professor. I still have a hard time killing my darlings, though by now I’ve destroyed enough to be considered a serial killer.

  11. I laughed out loud at the beginning of this post because my husband often says to me – if a book makes you so angry why do you keep reading it. But there is something about a book being a book and me not feeling like I can stop until the thing is finished – even if the writer is driving me crazy. You give good pointers on how writers can avoid some of the pitfalls that make readers want to start screaming. I’ve come to a point where I divide the poorly done books into two categories – a good story, poorly written, a poor story, well written. Let’s not eve discuss a poor story, poorly written. Too, sad. Anyway – perfect sentence construction, faultless proofing and good formatting cannot redeem a bad story. All those factors certainly detract from a good story and I find myself frustrated for the writer. Either way, I read to the end and fume. Great post!

    1. I like those good/bad categories. I usually don’t read to the end unless the story is really strong, but I’ve picked up a couple books lately that are “good story/poorly written.” I often wish the author had given it to a few more readers and gotten more advice before moving forward.

  12. any particular “darling” i try not to delete permanently, it stays waiting in the wings for further review or improvement or just remains waiting in the wings …. your writing comes from somewhere withnin you at any particular moment in time, my advice would be to save it and possibly come back to it a bit down the line ….. Jimi

    1. Thanks–I have to agree. Some of the material I’ve cut has come in handy during later projects–not directly maybe but as a concept. I save everything in alternate folders. I guess you never know. Thank you for stopping by and commenting! 🙂

  13. In the words of Joss Whedon: “If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favorite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes it’s inevitable.”

    1. Had to look this guy up. LOVED cabin in the woods and can appreciate a lot of his other projects. Useful advice–makes a lot of sense! Let the story be what it wants to be instead of forcing it into a predetermined mold. 🙂

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