As writing advice goes – it doesn’t get much pithier.
It’s even shorter than the original version which said, ‘murder your darlings’. The quote’s often attributed to William Faulkner or Stephen King, but it actually came from the pen of the English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.
The irony is, of course, that the more an author loves a darling, the less likely she is to recognise one. Not when literary sweethearts are sentences, passages, even entire scenes of which she’s most proud.
But as we know, they’re also phrases, description, lines of dialogue that are just a tad too clever, a gnat’s too self-indulgent, even a smidgeon pretentious. The author loves all those precious little literary ones but they add nothing to the narrative.
Far from developing the story, they distract from the action. As with cooks and broth, too many darlings spoil the plot.
Or do they?
Who gets to define, darlings? One person’s meaty prose might be another’s wordy poison.
Let’s face it no one can write a book that will please every reader. But surely a good place to start is with writing that the author really likes a lot? I’d rather produce a page of over-indulged darlings which I can then work on than face a page of words that whisper not-so sweet nothings in my ear. To my way of thinking, a screen filled with purple prose beats the pedestrian shrinking-violet kind any day.
I have to say I’m feeling this way because I’ve just spent well over a week writing the opening sequence of my next novel and on Sunday I reluctantly came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t working. The words didn’t leap off the page they limped along weak lines. The writing didn’t scintillate and it certainly didn’t sing – it had lost its voice. Like me. Temporarily, I’d lost my author’s voice. (I was battling a sore throat and heavy cold as well but that’s another story.)
There is a saving grace though.
Having written fourteen crime novels, I knew that forcing it and continuing to try and make the sequence work would be like flogging a dead horse. As with the horse, it was beyond saving.
Much as it pains me to admit, the prose was so lifeless there was only one place for it: the writing equivalent of the knacker’s yard.
For the first time, I scrapped the entire opening of a novel and started completely afresh. I doubt I’d have taken that course ten, even five, years ago but with fifteen years’ fiction writing experience (and twenty more in journalism) I had – and still have – no doubt that it was the right write thing to do.
The prose was just plain ordinary and I recognised that fact just as those years spent writing help me recognise the darlings I produce. I certainly know which I prefer to kill: the padding plodding prose deserves to die; the darlings at least have potential. Deft sharp editing can give new life.
Of course in a crime writer’s life ‘killing darlings’ often takes on a new meaning. Some readers still berate me for dispatching one of my lead detectives to the grand interview room in the sky.
And that, too, is another story. . .
And I’m delighted to say – so is this . . .
It’s my fourteenth novel and the ninth in my DS Bev Morriss series. It came out just last month and I so hope you like it – darling.