Dana King Offers His Perspective on Killing Your Darlings

Dana King

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.

To be fair, it’s not always darlings that need killing. Sure, once in a while you have to trim a scene you loved writing because it’s too long. Sometimes you even have to cut it altogether because no matter how much you loved writing it and how entertaining you think it is, this book is not the place for it. Most often what you kill are more like casual acquaintances, maybe even words you barely knew at all and have no idea how they came to tag along with those you feel strongly about, like your favorite sister’s weird ex-boyfriend who keeps popping up even though everyone has written him off, including Sis. Extraneous words that make five-word sentences into seven. The dreaded pleonasm. Words you thought highly of at the time—why else would you have made the effort to type them?—but in the cold, harsh light of day you realize you not only don’t need but are better off without, as Sis clearly has decided with the boyfriend.

(A side note here to belatedly thank the late Pam Strickler. Pam was my first agent and almost broke my heart when she returned the first fifty pages of my manuscript with more red ink on the pages than the black I’d sent to her, with a note to fix these issues in the entire book and we could talk. Closer examination showed the same handful of problems over and over, the vast majority requiring no more than literary liposuction to trim the flab and prevent the reader wasting time wading through nine-word sentences that should have been seven. Six if I felt like working. Five once I got into it. Pam taught me more in those fifty pages of comments than I learned anyplace else and I will be forever sorry I didn’t get around to thanking her more directly before I lost the chance.)

Killing those darlings, friends, acquaintances, and hangers-on is one thing. Resurrection Mall, the next book in my Penns River series, required mass murder. I didn’t plan Resurrection Mall to be the third Penns River novel. It was to be the fifth Nick Forte PI story. Took me 53,000 words of trying to make things work before I realized the problem wasn’t in the story: it was the setting. And the characters. The point of view. And the voice. The story of a religiously-themed shopping center rising Phoenix-like from a failed predecessor wasn’t one for Nick Forte to tell from a suburb of Chicago. It belonged in the core of Penns River. “Raised, not razed” is about the only thing I kept from the original 53,000 words.

You think trimming a seven-word sentence to five is tough, let me tell you something: deciding to throw almost three months’ work into the crapper is not a decision lightly made. I doubt I would have done it had I written before the age of computers, when every cut is available for salvage. The original Resurrection Mall waits for me on my hard drive with scenes I’d love to find a good place for. Makes those hard decisions that much easier, knowing the darlings you just killed are only mostly dead and that your Muse is also a literary Miracle Max ready and willing to bring them back to life.