In a continuing series of features from our authors, Dana King offers his perspective on “killing your darlings”.
Following Frank Zafiro’s excellent piece on self-editing that ran here last month is a tough order. He covered a lot of ground, but it’s a broad enough topic that there’s always more to talk about.
There are few hoarier writing phrases than “Kill your darlings.” Variously attributed to William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G.K. Chesterton, Anton Chekhov, Stephen King, and the unforgettable Arthur Quiller-Couch, who may have been its originator. I’m pretty sure Dorothy Parker got credit the first time I heard it. Doesn’t matter. It’s been around.
What does it mean? Stephen King (no relation, dammit) associated it with Elmore Leonard’s equally famous dictum to “leave out the parts readers tend to skip,” and that one must “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” (On Writing, Page 222.) Basically it means to cut all the unnecessary twaddle that accumulates in the first drafts of books. (And often the second drafts, and sometimes the third. Sometimes even later. I’m talking to you, Dan Brown.) Give the reader a fighting chance. He or she isn’t spending their time—having already shelled out their money—to read what you think are the most exquisite and deathless sentences composed in whatever language you write in. They want you to tell them a story. It’s why we’re called storytellers and why the field has been revered in one way or another since before our ancestors left cryptic drawings on cave walls.