“Kill Your Darlings.”
If you haven’t heard this time-honored adage of the writing trade you’re probably new to the profession. It means that sometimes you have to leave your favorite parts of a draft or idea on the cutting room floor because the finished book is better without them.
Kill Your Darlings
Killing your darlings properly means you have to cut out and remove any extra writing that isn’t exceptional or doesn’t serve your reader. When it comes to writing a great book, good can become the enemy of the great. Sometimes you have to cut out a good scene to make a great book.
Here are some ways you can and should kill your darlings:
- Lines of dialogue you love, but that aren’t appropriate for the character, mood, or situation
- Scenes that are snappy and awesome but don’t move the story forward
- Characters who make you smile but just add weight without benefit
- Ideas and concepts that don’t make the story better
And many, many more.
The advice is right. When even your favorite piece of writing you ever did doesn’t serve the manuscript as a whole, you must kill them as ruthlessly as a Star Trek villain with a redshirted ensign.
But here’s a secret.
They don’t have to stay dead.
Most of your darlings are awesome. That’s why they’re your darlings. Like Dr. Frankenstein and George Romero, you can bring them back to life.
Here’s how to take that writing you cut and still put it to good use.
1. Save the Bodies
No matter why you pulled a nice piece of writing out of a finished work, never use the Delete button. Always opt for Ctrl+X and paste that freshly murdered darling into some kind of idea stockpile—I call it a zombie file. Then save it into whatever collection method you prefer.
Some folks keep an open Word file or Google Drive document. Others like to use OneNote or Evernote. Still others use Scrivener, or even put together a wiki.
It doesn’t matter where you keep the things you save or how you organize them. Cut and paste is pretty much platform independent, so use it early and often. Then you’ll have the spare parts you need when reanimation time is nigh.
2. Triage the Remains
As any mad scientist knows, not everything you pull out of the graveyard is worth using. Just because you love a piece of writing doesn’t mean it’s inherently worthy. Even the greats have ideas they shouldn’t have executed—but the greats know when to leave them alone.
A few unusable body parts include:
- Things you think are funny, but nobody else seems to understand
- Comments or dialogue that make you look like a jerk
- Characters who exist solely for comedic effect
- Anything you culled because you did it better in another chapter
- Things you consistently had to explain to your beta readers
You’ll know it when you see it because you’re a professional, and professionals know how to tell their best efforts from something that still requires work.
Now you have two options: You can use the Delete button to jettison the dead weight forever, or you can massage it until it’s a usable piece of writing. Which option is most appropriate is between you and your muse.
3. Create New Life from Old Parts
After triage, what you’ll have left is a collection of great ideas and components. Your job is to find a home for as many of them as you can. I recommend working through two techniques for this.
Calls for Submission
Start with your list of current submission opportunities: magazines, writing contests, anthologies, sequels you plan to write, whatever you have going on. For each, skim through your idea file and see what sticks. Let the individual idea expand into an entire story or a key part of a longer work.
Start with your idea file. Go through it until an idea really sticks in your mental craw, then expand it into a story or part of a larger work. Once you have the general concept in mind, go into your markets file and figure out what kind of home that expansion might fit into.
I’ve found it’s best to go through this process in quarterly cycles. Do one technique one month, the other the second month, then take a month off to let yourself refresh before starting it over with the next quarter.
4. Expand and Polish
One of the reasons you had to kill a darling in the first place is that it wasn’t ready for inclusion in a finished work. So you can’t just pull body parts out of your zombie file and expect them to walk on their own.
You have to sew, stitch, combine, expand, power up, cut down, trim, grow, mutilate, and alter each one until it becomes what it’s capable of being. By the end of the process, it might not look much like the original idea or character or scene you pulled from an earlier work … but it will stand and shine on its own merits.
This step is the hardest part of the entire process, and there’s no easy workaround. But don’t fear: You’re already pretty good at it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be a writer in the first place.
5. Final Thoughts
One of my most influential mentors used to say “‘Not now’ doesn’t mean ‘not ever.’” That’s some of the best and most powerful advice I’ve ever received about anything, but it’s especially applicable to killing and reanimating your darlings.
Let’s be honest: We resist killing our darlings (even though we must) because we like them so much. The adage isn’t “Kill the stuff you didn’t like anyway.”
I find that keeping a zombie file doesn’t just give me ways to use work I already did. It makes it easier for me to let things go when they need to be let go.
Because I can always bring them back to life.
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