Killing Your Darlings or Saving Your Favorites

I’ve read the phrase ‘killing your darlings’ quite a bit lately. For writing, it basically means you often have to get rid of your favorite things to make something work. The thing is, the phrase itself doesn’t really work for me. The word ‘darling’ feels a little archaic. And I don’t really feel like I am killing anything. If I was killing something, I think it would be more like killing a favorite pet. That is probably what darling is meant to connote,  but it doesn’t for me.

When I was just writing for myself, I didn’t really have to worry about such things. But I am stepping into writing as a means to communicate. So I have to start thinking about what other people are getting out of what I write.

So far, the process of letting go my favorites has been difficult, but not like I would have expected. When I hear the phrase ‘killing your darlings’, I think of an emotional ordeal. ‘My soul is wrung of every last drop of tears as I kill my favorite line in this story,’ or some such thing. But it hasn’t been like that for me. It is hard to let go of things, but doesn’t really feel like killing them.

For instance, yesterday I was looking at a novel manuscript I wrote a few years ago. I realized that I tried to do too much with it. There are three really confusing elements to it. I stopped editing it because I decided I didn’t have the skill to bring out the theme. Looking at it again, I realized I didn’t have the skill because most writers don’t. I don’t know any singers that can sing three harmonies at once. You need three people to do that, I think. And while it is possible to play several different notes on some instruments, it is generally best to do so to play only a single song. I didn’t need more skill, I needed focus. But that meant I got to keep one of the three things and had to let the other two go. One of the three wasn’t very important to me. But the other was my favorite part of the book. It even defined my working title (which I loved).

I read somewhere that editing a novel is like inspecting a corpse. More specifically, it is like inspecting a cobbled together body much like Frankenstein’s monster. How to bring this cobbled together thing to life? Well to start, six arms will probably not be helpful. So I just destroyed the working title of my novel yesterday and scooped out at least two-thirds of the content. It was hard. But there were no tears. Because I chose not to think of it like that.

What I can do as a writer is keep my original draft for me. It is important to me as it is. It doesn’t work, of course. It doesn’t communicate the things I wanted to communicate. But it isn’t dead. I don’t have to kill it. I can keep that version of it if for no one other than myself. So I’m not really ‘killing’ my darlings. I’m just keeping them. The things that I value and no one else would value, I shall horde away for myself. They aren’t dead. They will just line the archives of my writing museum that only I need visit.

I think perhaps this is why I don’t find myself weeping at the thought of losing my working title for this novel. It is precious to me. But the fact that I am changing it means that I get to keep the title all for myself. And the thing that I eventually create from that draft will rise from the ashes like a phoenix. Or, at least, so I hope. I’m not killing anything. I’m just saving my favorites in the process of trying to make something even better. Who knows, maybe I’ll like the new title even better.

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