Kill Your Darlings

I’ve written professionally for years.  I started in video games, then added naval history, and brewing, and grew from there.

I know I can write because, well, I have.  But…


I’m sorry, but is there a freaking writer out there — beyond the dozen or so who are the “top shelf” folks — who doesn’t question themselves from time to time?

Look, I go back through the old posts on this blog from time to time, if only to reacquaint myself with the ground I’ve covered already.  I re-read those old posts and I can’t help but think, “just how fucking drunk was I?”

But not all the time.

Sometimes, I go back and re-read those words and I think, “Shit…I’m not bad at this, am I?”

Let’s be honest, until you’re selling 100,000 copies a book, no one is going to tell you that you can write.  Until you’re making someone else millions in profit, you’re just a hack.  Until then, the only barometer you have is…you.

Beta-readers don’t count.  Family and friends don’t count.  Hell, the writing-group you go to every Wednesday doesn’t count, either.  No, the only thing that counts is that inner critic that we all (should) have.  If you are not your own biggest critic, by the way, you’re doing it wrong.

If you don’t read the old sentences and wince at some of the choices you made about words and order…

If you don’t read the old scenes and wince at some of the choices you made about description and exposition…

If you don’t read the old stories you wrote and wince at some of the choices you made about plot and characterization…

If you don’t see the flaws and problems in your own work, that does NOT mean it’s perfect!  It just means you need to go back to square one and start learning again to be a reader.

As I mentioned before, I tried watching the new Lost in Space.  I wanted to love it, I really did, but I just couldn’t.  Why not?  Not because of the visuals, they were excellent.  Nor was it because of the production values, they were world-class.  No, I couldn’t love it because the writing flat-out sucked.  The characterization and plotting were elementary-school level, and the series betrayed the very characters it wanted to represent.

If I can see the flaws in the stories I read (and watch), I better damned well be able to see them in those I write.

And that’s the hard part…

Look, I don’t know how the rest of the writer-ish universe does it, but for me to really write — I mean really write — I have to fall in love with my material.  My characters have to be real to me; they have to speak, and make their own demands on me…and I have to listen to them.

That sounds great.  It sounds like the Writing 101 Q & A session we all wish we had heard when we were starting out.  What it does not sound like is reality…

Oh, don’t get me wrong, my major characters ARE real to me.  Connor and Oz still speak to me, in the same way that Finn and Ilo are beginning to.  The problem isn’t hearing the characters, just as it isn’t understanding them (and their motivations).  No, the problem is something I mention so often: falling in love.

I fell in love with Connor and Oz before I was even a quarter of the way through Somewhere Peaceful.  I’m falling in love with Finn and Ilo even as I’m working on the initial planning and plotting…

Just as happens so often when you fall for a new lover, falling in love with a character/story makes you stupid.  It blinds you to their flaws and faults…and to the flaws and faults in your story.

Stephen King famously advised, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, kill your darlings.”

He wasn’t talking about killing characters — well, not just about killing characters — he was talking about all those elements of a story that just don’t work, no matter how attached to them you may be.  You may love a certain scene, event or idea — it may be your darling — but if It doesn’t work, it has to die.

And, sadly, only you can truly be the killer of your darlings.

You train yourself to be that killer by finding other writers’ darlings; you learn to find them in the works you already love even more than in the works you don’t.  You find the darlings that should have died in Tolkien and Jordan…you find them in Tolstoy and Dickens…you find them in Lucas and Kubrick…you find them, even, in that dang love poem your mom wrote to your dad when they were young…

If you can’t learn to kill your darlings, who the hell will?

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