|Guilty of wordslaughter!|
“Kill your darlings.” I think it was William Faulkner who said it first, though it was Stephen King in On Writing who hammered it home for me. No, they weren’t advocating homicide, though if you’re familiar with either man’s work you can’t be blamed for leaping to that conclusion.
In writing, “kill your darlings” essentially means don’t grow so attached to your own words that you can’t see when they aren’t working. This can be as simple as cutting out a few lines or a scene, or as big as cutting a chapter or more. In Sometimes the Magic Works, Terry Brooks told the story of his first attempt at a follow-up to The Sword of Shannara. He worked for two years or more, completed three-quarters of the novel, and could not figure out how to finish the book. He and his editor, Lester Del Rey, concluded the book was beyond repair. Brooks abandoned the project and started over.
I’ve always supported the “kill your darlings” concept. That’s right! No mercy! Cobra Kai baby!
And then it happened to me.
I began work on the next full-length Dane Maddock novel back in the fall, took a break to work on other projects, then returned to it this spring. I had a rough outline (I’m not an outlining kind of guy), had done extensive research, and written a sizable chunk of the book. Saturday, I threw it away and started over.
It wasn’t an easy decision. There wasn’t anything wrong with the quality of the writing, but I could tell the story was not going to work. I suppose I could have soldiered on and produced a crappy book with a plot that meandered all over the place before coming to a conclusion that left the reader asking, “What just happened?” I wouldn’t be surprised if some writers have done something along those lines (I’ve read a few books that gave me such an impression) but I appreciate my readers too much to do something like that. I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest writer, but I work hard to tell an entertaining story, and I had the feeling the book that was coming together was going to be more annoying than entertaining.
What went wrong? The short answer is I tried to do too much. The seeds of every Dane Maddock adventure are: the mystery out of history, clues, cool places, bad guys, a creepy creature or two, the MacGuffin (artifact or other cool thing Dane and Bones are after) and a setting for the big finish. In this book, I had the mystery and a figure from history to go with it, some cool places and clues based on legend. I also had the bad guys, MacGuffin and big finish that made sense together, but felt like an odd fit in this novel. I’d done enough research that I knew I could make it work, but it never felt right to me. Then, in the midst of my research, I found another historical figure who was a perfect fit for the latter items, but his story didn’t fit the clues and cool places. I really wanted to use him, though, so I decided to expand the plot to include his back story and locations that fit with him and his legend. More is better, right?
I finally accepted I was trying to combine two books into one. This meant I had to sacrifice half the book; either my initial historical mystery along with its clues and cool locations, or my exciting second figure out of history, the macguffin, and the final showdown. Either way I was putting aside a lot of work. I decided to work with my first character, mystery, and set of locales. That was what inspired the story in the first place. I took a “thinking day” to pick a new MacGuffin, and work out the other elements that best fit with it.
The end result: with my new plan in place the words flowed and the story is back on track. Plus, with the parts I abandoned, I have half of the research and plotting done for a future novel. What? You didn’t really think I’d just throw it all away did you? That’s another plus of killing your darlings. Sometimes, like in Terry Brooks’s case, they really do have to go. Other times, you’re really just putting them on the shelf for later use.
That’s the good/bad news. Back to work on Maddock book five! (I’d tell you the working title, but it would be a spoiler.) Thanks for reading!