Murder your darlings.

Quite a jarring statement if you haven’t heard it before. Never fear: It’s a writing thing. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a British journalist, critic, novelist, and professor gave the following advice:

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

When I first heard it, I thought it meant I was supposed to make my writing bland and generic. So I ignored the statement. Who wants bland writing? Not me! I wrote freely.

With abandon.

And flourish.

So much flourish.

If you read my previous post, you know all of that flourish mutated into a giant angry story squid. I realized my embellished writing was tiresome, but I was afraid to write plainly. Then I realized this was an issue of confidence.

I had something to prove.

Let me clarify that a “darling” is a segment of writing or a character who is beautifully written, fun, intriguing, and a distraction. Distraction is the key element. A darling isn’t simply a good piece a writing: It’s something that is dragging the plot down.

Squid tentacles.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said, “Murder your squid tentacles?” Much easier. The kraken is dragging the ship down, what do you do? Avast, me hearties! Cut off its arms! But a darling is called a darling for a reason. It’s likable. The reason a darling is difficult to kill is because it speaks to your skill as a writer.

Look how amazing I am!

See what I have done with the plot!

Stand in awe this character I’ve developed!

Meanwhile the story is drowning as the giant squid drags it under. But my story needs this! Maybe. Check your outline. Truly necessary pieces are usually common sense. Of course this is in there. Bob’s friend Ob can’t save the lost narwhal if Bob never meets Ob.  If you’re getting defensive about a piece, there is a strong chance it’s a darling.When you defend your darlings, you feed the kraken. Don’t feed the kraken. If there is one thing I’ve learned from my kraken-fighting misadventures it is this:

If you have written well before, you can write well again.

Don’t let those darlings define you. Set them aside and get on with the real story. It’s possible that a darling could become its own story some day. Maybe it won’t become anything. Even then, it won’t be a waste. Notice that Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch didn’t say “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, whack yourself on the head until the impulse goes away so you can write something sensible.”

Indulge that impulse.

It’s good to exercise your writing muscles. Just keep it in perspective. A runner might use dumbbells and weighted vests while training for a marathon, but it would be silly to run with weight training equipment in a 26.2 mile race. The same goes for your darlings. Exercise your writing muscles, but leave the dumbbells behind.

For a great read about darlings, check out How (and When!) to Kill Your Darlings, by Natalie Damschroder for Writers’ Village.

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