writing tips

How to kill your darlings: advice on literary murder from author Chuck Bowie

It’s a real pleasure to welcome author Chuck Bowie back to my blog, with some advice on how to cut your finest pieces of prose without crying. Thanks for coming, Chuck. And to everyone else – prepare to man up!

Kill Your Darlings (Or Don’t)

chuck bowie, helena fairfaxIn 1914, Arthur Quiller-Couch said in a lecture:

“If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘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.”

Faulkner, Ginsberg, and even Stephen King repeated this horrible advice. I say ‘horrible’ in the sense that medicine tastes bad, bad, bad. You don’t want to, but you do. (You make a face, but you swallow it.)

So, what does it mean?

Crudely stated, it would be a crime to enhance the physical attributes of the statues of the Venus de Milo or of David. A busty Venus would not make her more beautiful. And these, um, enhancements would in fact detract from the beauty of the work. We stare at the perfection of Michelangelo’s work and are reminded of his explanation of how his mind functions (I’m paraphrasing) when he says, ‘I just take a block of marble and chip away everything that doesn’t look like it belongs on my sculpture.’

Do you see where I’m going?

In my first novel, Three Wrongs, I included a one-page description of a meal. Every time I re-read it, I was hungry. I wanted that food for days after reading that passage. Coincidentally, I wrote a half-page seduction scene, about five pages after the dinner scene. My editor came back to me: “Really? You spend all that time to describe a simple meal, yet there’s only a half a page seduction scene to let the reader know

  • The man doesn’t like or trust the woman
  • The woman is beautiful, but not desired by the man
  • The woman has ulterior motives in getting him into bed
  • There is vengeance and jealousy involved in her thinking
  • The woman is prepared to threaten him with a bodyguard, standing outside the hotel room door
  • This action becomes ‘the straw that breaks the camel’s back,’ in terms of his relationship with (the seductress).”

I asked myself what the purpose of the food scene was, and realized my plot-related goals could be achieved with a paragraph or two. Filled with regret, I chopped the food scene, murdering my darling.

It doesn’t always have to have this ending. If you have a good relationship with your content editor, you can enter into a dialogue that goes something like this scenechuck bowie, helena fairfax, amacat from my second novel: AMACAT:

Ed: Kill the scene on P100. It’s a chase scene where no one is actually being chased. Unnecessary.

Me: I think it tells a lot about the two being chased.

Ed: Help me to understand.

Me: The man is trying to keep the woman safe. The woman is being framed by persons unknown. They barely know one another, yet there is danger around every corner, including the murder/escape they just ducked out of. The so-called chase scene is really an opportunity for him and her to get to know one another better, who they are to each other.

Ed: Ah. Okay, let’s keep it.

What did I learn from these two experiences? Several things, really. I learned I don’t know everything there is to know about writing, not even my own writing. An experienced outside force can tell you truths you didn’t want to hear, but needed to hear. I learned a bit about looking at each scene, asking myself ‘Does every sentence serve a purpose: does it feed character development, pursuance of plot, connection to overall structure, efficiency of exposition?’

I had to chuckle at this following kernel of insight: Sometimes I am capable of writing a masterful scene, only to discover it’s from some book I haven’t yet written. It can be a thing of beauty, but just isn’t a part of the story being told. If it doesn’t push things along, or clarify, or provide some critical insight to the story, then I must get rid of it. Ask any writer who’s been at it awhile, and they’ll confess they have snippets, excerpts and sometimes whole passages they’ve chopped out of past works and placed in purgatory, until such time as a new role can be found for it.

Murder your darlings, indeed. Never! I merely brick them up in a sealed tomb, to be resurrected down the road. Now, into which file did I save that amazing zombie chapter?

~~~

chuck bowie, helena fairfaxChuck Bowie is an East Coast Canadian author.

In the Donovan: Thief For Hire suspense-thriller series,

His first novel, Three Wrongs, can be found here on Amazon US

His second novel, AMACAT, can be found here on Amazon US

Chuck is just finishing his third novel: Steal It All (in which, indeed, it all gets stolen.) He’s already excited about the fourth book, which begins this fall.

* * *

Thanks for the great advice, Chuck. Killing your darlings is one of the hardest things for an author to do. In the first book I ever wrote I had a whole passage where the heroine turned out to be a great singer. It was very moving, but totally irrelevant to anything else going on! That passage is now in a folder called Dead Darlings, waiting to be resurrected :)

I look forward to release of Steal It All. Good luck with completing it, and thanks so much for coming by!

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18 thoughts on “How to kill your darlings: advice on literary murder from author Chuck Bowie

  1. Chuck, thank you for your insightful post.

    Sometime the “Darlings” that our editors want us to kill, that don’t add to the plot, might add to character development. I suppose it might have to do with the genre that an author is writing in.

    I write cozy mysteries and although I try to help my plot line along the way, character development in a cozy is as important as plot. Plot is not more important than character, especially since cozies are usually in a series with many of the same characters reappearing. That’s why the genre is popular.

    When I read a cozy series, it usually isn’t because of the plot but rather I want to know what my favorite characters have been up to.

    Maybe by what I just wrote, you can tell that it is hard for me to kill my darlings…lol.

    Best wishes. Great post.

    And all readers are different. That’s why there are so many genres and subgenres. I would much rather read about a scrumptious meal that a character is eating, than a seduction scene any day.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Susan. With Book 1, anything the editor suggested, I was ready to jump to it and obey. (And they were mostly correct). With book 2, I felt I was in a better position to at least argue my points. (Still, the editors, bless ’em, were still mostly correct!)
      As for cozys, I love ’em. I’ll have to pick up one of yours. Which one will I start with?

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      1. Hello Chuck. Thanks for asking about my cozies. The Ginseng Conspiracy is the first in the Kay Driscoll series and is published and available on Amazon, iTunes, MIU, etc. and my second cozy in the series is coming out in November, Murder Under the Tree.

        Susan :)

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    2. Hi Susan, I too love novels that are driven more by character than by plot. A simple act in the narrative that might seem irrelevant (eg a family meal) can reveal a lot about character. Like you, I hate to kill my darlings, but nowadays I do try to make sure that every scene – even every line – adds something to the story.
      Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment

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  2. Of all things, there is a sequence re chipping away the marble in RAMBO III which sums it up neatly (Stallone’s quite the under-rated scriptwriter, I tend to think) and I often refer to the occasion when – to be blunt – I had a character of mine raped. Nearly killed me at the time, but it had to be done.

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    1. It takes courage to write a tough scene. I have a hard time with them. In AMACAT, I wrote a murder scene that I LOVED! And it wrote itself. But I had a hard time letting my heroine take a sock to the jaw.

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    2. Hi James, it is hard to write a tough scene, as Chuck says, especially a rape scene, as there’s a danger the reader will think it just there for shock value. I thought the rape scene in Downton was just a gratuitous shocker when I first saw it, but now I think there was a purpose to it, especially as it relates to the development of Bates’s character. (Here’s me thinking deeply about Downton!)
      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment

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  3. Aloha Helena and Chuck. :-)

    Great interview guys. :-). I’m going to revise my files that say boring ‘Research Hawaiian Lei’ to Dead Darlings. Lol. I love it.

    I as always have completely misinterpreted that saying. I hate writers who kill off good characters. Lol. Ah. But it means some of the pieces might have to be cut. I can live with that.

    I hear you on the food scene Chuck. :-). It would have worked for me. I’m a foodie. But I would have wanted the equally long if not longer sex scenes as well. I’d want all the delights in length. :-)

    Anyway. Very fun and interesting. Thanks guys. Aloha Meg. :-)

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    1. I have been lucky with my cover artists. I’m a big fan of their work! I feel it reflects the sensibility of my characters, as well. My protagonist isn’t James Bond; he;s just a guy seeking redemption. And Beth, the female lead, is nice! You root for her.
      Thanks for your comments.

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  4. I am such a romantic I would never get published because I want everything I write to stay. As a totally biased sister to |Chuck-his descriptions are so….descriptive.

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