Elmore Leonard, purple prose, Revision, slow passages, Stephen King, Toni Lopopolo, Writing

Want to Write Better? Kill Your Darlings

The first time I heard the saying “Kill your darlings,” was when writing boot camp instructor, Toni Lopopolo, held up an 8×12 poster with a big slash over the words. The words originally came from Sir Arthur Quiller Couch:

‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

William Faulkner paraphrased the quote to:

                                                       “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

Stephen King, yes that SK, reiterated this advice in his book “On Writing.” The use of KYD is one of the first things he recommends after a first draft. To get to a second draft  he suggests cutting the first one by 10%. You can easily start with KYD.

And last but not least, Elmore Leonard’s take on this:

         ” …kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” 

Darlings are those beautiful bits of prose, a character, or setting that you just love. It can be a wonderful turn of a phrase, an insightful nugget of wisdom, a character, unique adjectives or adverbs. Sounds so precious, right? In and of themselves they sure do, but alas, they don’t fit in the story. They’re filler words, setting, dialogue, or characters. 

                            The words aren’t there to fulfill word counts- every word must count.

It’s important not to get so attached to these scenes or dialogue that you can’t bring yourself to cut them for the sake of the overall story. Another piece of advice that Stephen King and many other authors give: put your first draft away for 4 to 6 weeks then look at it with fresh eyes and mind. After some distance you may recognize the KYD’s that snuck into your draft. 

The KYD’s to look for are: 

  • Ineffective Dialogue: it rambles, is dull, makes small talk, or enters the rabbit hole
  • Telling: there is so much narrative there are blocks of black-show don’t tell
  • Purple Prose: flowery, fifty dollar words when simple, straightforward is enough
  • Slow passages: another ramble and the reader yawns or skips-slows pace
  • Characters: who don’t further the plot or is unimportant to story
  • Verb/Adverb combo: too many results in weakened writing-go for the strong verb
When you find these intruders….Kill ’em. 
If you want to show some mercy, then cut and paste them onto a document you title “Sneaky B’s,” or other such reminder. You may want that evicted character you worked on for months to go in another story. That beautiful or dark setting may work somewhere else. 

I know this is a difficult thing to do. If you can’t bear to KYD’s, have someone you trust read and wield the red pen. It’s only red ink, not blood, you can take it. 

How do you KYD’s? I’m interested to know since I have two MS’s in revision and I’m giving myself a deadline.  

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