Before I begin today, I wanted to point out that these mini-essays are not meant to say that the advice is bad or shouldn’t be followed. I think it’s good advice. I’m trying to point out ways in which perfectly good advice as perverted or misinterpreted. In the case of yesterday’s topic, Passive Voice, you have advice to avoid using passive voice perverted to mean “take out all the ‘was’ and ‘hads’ in your book.” Which is not what it means.
Also, watched Paycheck yesterday. Now, despite the practically criminal lack of respect John Woo seems to have for logic or the laws of physics, I always enjoy his movies. Is that bad? You really can’t examine his films very long, or the whole thing begins to disintegrate in a series of illogical jumps, improbably moments and bizarre characterization, but they are fun.
Today’s topic on WHEN GOOD ADVICE GOES BAD
KILL YOUR DARLINGS
At my very first TARA meeting in 2002, the now-bestselling Karen Hawkins gave a lovely speech about writing humor, but in the course of the speech, she gave me one of the best pieces of writing advice I have ever received: Love the book, not the scene. Not the scene, not the line, not the sunset not the quip, not the juicy secondary character, not the saucy shake of the head that the heroine makes. Love the book, not the scene. We’ve all been there. We’ve all written lines, scenes, descriptions, and characters that we absolutely ADORE. They’re so cute, so funny, so poignant, so perfect… well, except for in the service for which they’ve been created, which is to make your book perfect.
You don’t want to lose them, They’re too good to banish from your pages. So you try to work around them, because you know that they aren’t right for the book. At best, this produces a book with an off note, a flat key in the midst of a beautiful melody. At worst you get completely off track with your book, subverting your entire story for the sake of this one perfect scene that you can’t bear to part with.
Stop that. Stop it right now. Love the book, not the scene. Extract it carefully if you must, then preserve it in a little file for wayward scenes that are beautiful — but remove it from your book before it becomes a cancer. Love the book, not the scene. I think it’s Faulkner who calls this “Killing your babies.” I’ve also heard it referred to (by slightly less paternal types) as “killing your darlings.” No matter, it all means the same thing. If you love something, but it doesn’t work, take it out. Love the book, not the scene.
So, how can such a fabulous piece of advice, one of my favorites, be used for evil? Glad you asked. As with many things, it’s all a matter of degrees.
Two years after that fateful workshop with Karen Hawkins, I was at a national conference of a writer’s group in Dallas (do the math), minding my own business in a craft workshop when a multi-published author stood before the crowd of eager young scribblers and told them, “Kill your Darlings.” Fair enough. I began scribbling it down, translating into my head my already oft-repeated Hawkinsinian mantra of “Love the Book, Not the Scene.” (Some people like Ohm mani padme hum, I like this. Sue me.) In fact I was so distracted by the mantra, that I almost missed what she said next, which fair knocked me out of my seat.
In fact, if there’s a part of your story that you find especially wonderful, whatever your favorite piece is, it’s a sure bet that’s the part that has to be cut.
The hell?!?! I then spent the next half hour, hand pressed to my chest in shock, at a lunch table of other workshop attendees who cleaved to that bit of advice, and expounded at length about how self-indulgent and counterproductive it was to keep any part of the story you actually liked in your book. Obviously, if you liked it, it meant it was wrong. (I excused myself early and headed to the bar for a stiff one.)
Are we supposed to be such absolutely wretched judges of our own work that we can’t find beauty in a particular part of the book without it being some sort of subconscious desire to defend it against proper deletion? That is, if one will pardon my coarse speech, horseshit. I will not deny that I have steadfastly clung to bits of scenes and/or lines and defended them unnecessarily against wiser CPs and editors and my own conscience before remembering my mantra. We all do that. But I am not so deluded as to think that the touchstone for whether or not something works should be cut from a book hinges on the degree that I love it. In fact, my favorite scene in my current book is actually my editor’s favorite scene as well. Says so write on the revision letter. ::smugness::
Ideally, I’m in love with every piece of my book, because they make the book, which I love more than all the pieces, work. And, in the process I might fall for a few pieces that don’t work so well. And, those, sadly, I will have to steel myself to excise.
The “Kill Your Darlings” perversion is a classic case of taking a perfectly good piece of advice to a bizarre, literal extreme. Sometimes I wonder about those workshop goers, if they went home and cut out every bit that they liked from their book. Every delicious description of their hero. Every rapid-fire page of sexually-charged banter. Every heartfelt declaration of love. Every part they liked, even the ones that worked, because they liked them. Don’t laugh. People sometimes take these workshop speakers at their word, especially if they are particularly successful.
So the moral of this story is, don’t kill your darlings just because they are darlings. That’s a crappy way to tell if something is bad for your book. Kill them because and only if they don’t work for the story. Love the book, not the scene. (And take everything you hear at a workshop or in an essay or on a writing blog with a grain of salt.)