Originally published at An Experimental Life. You can comment here or there.
Once again, I find myself in a position of killing darlings I created in a moment of passion. Every writer does it, and it does get easier, but there's always at least a little bit of an "ouch" involved. In case you're not familiar with the expression, to kill one's darlings means to take out things you've written that you personally love, but that for one reason or another don't pull their weight in the story. Like the 615 word bit of scene-setting below, which I'm including to give an example of a perfectly good darling that nonetheless had to die, and to gratify my desire to have someone other than my writing group see it. (You'd also never know to read this snippet that most of what I write is more "fun.")
There are lots of reasons why a darling might have to die. Maybe it screws up your pacing, or contains a jarring shift in style or perspective (either of which is fine if that's what you're going for). Maybe it doesn't really have much to do with the rest of the story, and is only there because you personally found it interesting to write. Maybe there are just too damn many words for the length of the thing you're trying to write, and the story needs other words more than it needs that scene, or that chunk of exposition, or that subplot. For whatever reason, sometimes you have to kill your darlings to make your story stronger.
Those scenes and snippets are not always wasted, though. When I catch myself over-writing, if I'm struggling, of course I'll stop, but if I'm overwriting because I'm on a roll and very into the process, I go with it, and trust myself to pick out the parts I need later. Even if I'm pretty sure I won't use any of those words in this story, if my subconscious wants me to type them that badly, I'm going to do it unless there's a compelling reason not to. (Like a deadline.) When the words keep pouring from your fingers and the imagery is flashing in your mind's eye and you're genuinely excited about what you're doing, something great is happening, and I urge you to let it happen.
Even in a worst case scenario, if you end up using none of those words in anything you ever submit for publication, even if you gain no further insight, or derive any other obvious benefit from writing those words, you will have, for however long it takes to write those words, ridden a zephyr, and that sense of exhileration when the words are flowing and your breath keeps catching in your throat is worth the time. It can be pretty refreshing and energizing, too, and give you that extra burst you need to write more words that you know you're going to use.
The 615-word or so "darling" below is pretty much unedited, with only a couple of minor changes from the way it came out of my fingers in one big bluuuuuuuuurp of the keyboard, so no, these are not the most carefully-chosen words. The entire thing was me being self-indulgent and writing the kind of description for a short story that might--just might--work in a novel of a certain type. (After editing it to make it better, of course--like I said, this was mostly one long squeeze of the metaphorical trigger, and the part of my brain that spooges words out just happened to be stuck on "automatic.") But however cheesy and overdoneit may be, I kind of like it. And I'm sad about killing it.
The 615-word darling I had to kill:
The mansion was a place of carefully regimented opulence that would have seemed decadent if not for the obvious stick up its ass. The place was more like a museum than anything else; it was as though someone had positioned each piece of furniture, every work of art, even the pleats in the drapes, to present some sort of mathematically perfect textbook milieu that could be appreciated clinically, without all that messy business of making human beings feel welcome. Like those staged rooms in famous dead people’s houses where the emptiness was something you could feel. Even the lighting was specifically contrived according to each room or passageway, to coax a serene glow from a vase that was probably older than most of Europe’s great cities, or to make a lead crystal chandelier sparkle with a stateliness that diamonds could only envy, or to paint a meticulously-positioned shadow of a specific hue and density to balance other elements in the room or soften just this one line. All that was missing were red velvet ropes strung between waist-high brass stands to reinforce that invisible wall that keeps museum visitors from touching anything, not because they can’t step over the ropes, but because such a thing would be unacceptable, in much the same way that people stay out of each others’ homes unless invited, not because of doors, but because of the idea of doors and what they represent, the separation they symbolize.
No children had ever run through these rooms without a nanny close behind admonishing them to have a little dignity, and there’d been no late-night passionate trysts on the daybed in the bright little sitting room Daniel had just passed. Although a maid or two had probably been bent over the desk in the study, or a pool boy given an “extra tip” in the pool shed, both of which activities would have been engaged in with a calculated and pre-determined safe level of passion, of course, and both of which would have been carefully ignored by the rest of the household, because at this stratum of society, transgressions of a certain type were permissible—expected, really—but to actually notice them would be unforgivable.
The smells also varied from room to room. Brightly regimented and carefully understated flowers in one room, an almost smothering cedar in another, and here and there the citrus or berry scent of a century’s worth of fragrant oils rubbed into wood so ancient as to be almost petrified. The smells in certain areas were the only thing that made the house seem even slightly alive, but even so, in most places the air carried, beneath everything else, that subtle mustiness of other people’s memories, and the dust from their feet that penetrates all the way through the carpeting and into the surface of the floor beneath so that it claims a place for all time, no matter how many clergy of cleanliness try to exorcise it with their chemicals and vacuum cleaners. The best they can do is destroy the old carpet like a discarded snake skin, seal off everything beneath with a layer of polyurethane, with perhaps a layer of carpet rich enough that its true purpose was not to cover the floor, but to say to visitors that its owners were so wealthy that they could afford to walk on even the most precious and expensive of things. And even so sealed and covered, all the dust and memories and pollens that have seeped into the bones of the house can’t be smothered, but are there, waiting to assert their claim once again when the layers of their oppression wear thin.
So yeah--That's what I killed. Again, not because it's horrible; I kind of like it, and think it has potential. Sure, it needs a good edit, like any other first draft of anything, but given that, in a longer story, and a story of the right kind, it would serve quite well. For an 8,000 word story, though, with everything else that needs to be in there, six-hundred and fifteen words is about five hundred too many for my purposes.
And even though I'm dumping most of this for now, it isn't wasted. I'll use little bits of imagery from this bit in other places in the story, and maybe in other stories, as well. Plus, although I didn't intend consciously to put certain things in, when I re-read this bit, I realized that there was a lot of symbolism in there that speaks to the story itself and the world I set it in. As a result of having written these words, I have a clearer idea of the setting, and a greater insight into the possibilities of the story itself. If I didn't use a single one of these words in the story, I'd still have gotten that out of writing them. And again, for just a couple of minutes, I got to ride the zephyr.
And here are the roughly 130 words with which I am (tentatively) replacing the darling above:
The mansion was a place of carefully regimented opulence that would have seemed decadent if not for the obvious stick up its ass. This was where old, expensive things came to die on display. Only the scents as Daniel approached the occupied wing made it believable as a home. Cinnamon and coffee, and just a hint of flowers. The mustiness that dominated the rest of the house like an unwanted memory was still there, but just barely.
Those may not be the final words--in fact, they will almost certainly not be--but they'll do for now. And as I said, even if I end up using none of them, I learned something by writing them, and had fun doing it. I guess to sum up everything else I've said here, not only should you not be afraid to kill your darlings, you should enjoy creating them, even if you know while you're doing so that you're going to have to kill them later.
So... What was the hardest darling you ever had to kill? Or wished you had killed? Or haven't yet been able to?