Must You Murder Your Darlings?

Readers - murder your darlingsThis isn’t the first time that the Libertà Hive has pondered the advice to writers to “murder your darlings.”

Indeed, Joanna got seriously confessional about doing exactly that a few months ago. Actually, in her case, it wasn’t so much wilful murder as a contract killing. Editors can be ruthless.

WHO WANTS YOU TO MURDER YOUR DARLINGS?

Stephen King On writing, kill your darlingsWell, Stephen King does a pretty good job of it in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” He was following William Faulkner. But even Faulkner wasn’t the originator.

It turns out to be Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch — that’s the Victorian Arthur Double-Barrelled who was NOT the author of Sherlock Holmes. He did write novels, lots of ’em, signing himself “Q”. But I’ve never read one. (Hmm. Maybe this year?)

But he was also a serious critic and anthologist. And from 1912 to his death in 1944 he was the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge. I’ve always thought that he pretty much invented Lit Crit, in fact.

WHICH DARLINGS?

Quilled-Couch murder your darlingsThe phrase in question comes from Q’s lecture On Style in 1914, when his Professorial career was just getting off the starting blocks. It’s clear that he’s not talking about a writer’s favourite characters or much-loved incidents, or even the whole plot. It’s all about self-conscious “fine writing”. He wasn’t in favour.

‘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.” He goes on to say that Literature must be “of its essence personal.”

And that’s exactly the same conclusion that the late Sara Craven and I came to when we sort of ran a workshop on writing The BIG Romantic Scene. The best examples were spare, clear and, above all, heart-felt. 

WHY MURDER YOUR DARLINGS?

Reader quits, murder your darlingsCourtesy to the reader is Q’s answer. Victorian prose could be florid to the point of festering lilies. Q hated writerly showing off. The poor old reader ended up confused and exhausted.

(Though, to be fair, his own lecturing style is not going to rock them in the aisles today. It was probably easier to follow him when he was delivering in person.)

Q identifies the dangers to look out for: “obscure or careless writing”. The more we do either, the more, in Q’s phrase, “we blunt the edge of [the reader’s] attention.”

Too right, squire. Eventually today’s reader is going to abandon the book and go for a swim. He quits.

But… but… but…

Successful writer, murder your darlingsAs a reader, I know I only engage with stories where the writing tells me their author is committed to them. So, aren’t they full of the writer’s darlings? Of course they are.

And, what’s more, old Q knew that. And tied himself up in paradoxes trying to prove that “the great masculine objective writers” were superior to any writer who “appeals to you by parade of personality or private sentiment.”

Leaving aside the casual sexism, and the worrying manipulation of the word “objective”, that is just so WRONG.

If I don’t care, I don’t read on.  And that’s as true of Homer as it is of Shakespeare, Jane Austen or Martina Cole. Writers, I need you to nurture your darlings, so I can too.

But then again, some darlings are a pain in the butt to readers

A personal confession here. Recently I read, or rather tried to read, a novel that I really liked the sound of. I fell over the first sentence.

where am I? Murder your darlingsI mean, I know what the individual words meant. But there were so many ideas and associations and allusions knocking against each other that the thing became meaningless. The first sentence! 

I did try to stick with it. But half my mind stayed with that first deluge of detritus, trying to make sense of it. Didn’t happen. I gave up after 50 pages.

I’m sure the author had been writing that first sentence for the whole time he’d spent on the book itself. He must have thought that he’d set up an intriguing start with lots of clues and promises. Because he knew what was coming. As a reader, I didn’t. I drowned.

MURDER YOUR DARLINGS WHEN …

… they get in the reader’s way.

I think the key is that plural. Lots of darlings confuse the eye.

Indeed, the first time I head the phrase was not from a writer but Peter Hall, the brilliant director who rejuvenated The Royal Shakespeare Company in the 60s. As I understood it, he was describing how one brilliant theatrical moment could be rendered meaningless by surrounding it with lots of other, equally brilliant, moments. Economists call it crowding out.

Joanna’s darling scene was striking, moving and important — and she’d researched it to blazes. But it got in the reader’s way because it shifted the whole focus away from the matter of her story.

My disappointing author never gave me a chance to orientate myself in his story because there were too many darlings compressed into his first page.

MURDER SELECTIVELY

So, speaking entirely as a reader here, I urge writers to be prepared to murder, certainly. But only on the principle of winnowing out those darlings who aren’t earning their keep.

Sophie Weston Author

Sophie

6 thoughts on “Must You Murder Your Darlings?

  1. lesley2cats

    That’s excellent, Sophie. And an example of which is Prout’s 599 word sentence Joanna mentioned last week. Whenever I write a word I use habitually but is, maybe, not in everyday use, I worry. I have one friend who questions words regularly (and Shakespeare, come to that. Don’t trust him.) which brings me up short, but I like to assume that my readers are reasonably intelligent and know what I’m talking about. Micheal Innes did it all the time.

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  2. Sophie Post author

    That 599-word sentence is really strange. It has an almost hallucinatory effect, I find. But it just whirls me round and round until my head spins and I have to go and lie down in a darkened room. Maybe that’s what Marcel wanted, of course.

    Single words or phrases are usually clear – or ballpark expressive, anyway – in context, aren’t they? In fact that’s how I acquired my vocabulary, I think, from reading books that were notionally for adults.

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  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    Completely with you on this, Sophie. Clarity is far more important than deathless prose IMO. Yes, try to avoid cliches, be free with your style, use unusual words, but be clear. Give the reader a rollercoaster ride delivered smoothly so they don’t have to stop and think about what it means. If your darlings interfere with that, then they have to go. Unfortunately it’s easily misunderstood that instruction and writers can take the heart out of their work by obeying it. This explanation is brilliant.

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    1. Sophie Post author

      And, to be fair to poor old Q, his main point was that he called “courtesy to the reader”. He was really tooting about over-decorated writing in this particular passage of the lecture. That was a much more common weakness then than now, I suspect.

      Only then he got sidetracked into recommending lofty impersonality as the Very Best Sort of [masculine, of course] writing and, really, I could box his ears.

      MUST read some of his fiction. He was very popular at the time, I gather.

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  4. Fay Keenan

    Absolutely agree with you – and, oddly, it’s so much easier to be selective with my own novels than it is when I write fanfiction! My fanfic is a vessel for all of the floridity I try to cut out in the books, I suppose!! Great post -will certainly be looking into ‘Q’ 🙂

    Reply
    1. Sophie Post author

      I’m not sure I was wholly fair to poor old Q. He was a man of his time, after all, and when he gave that lecture women hadn’t even got the vote! And he’d been a died-in-the wool literary cove unto the third generation.

      I was interested to see from Wikipedia that his war-hero son Bevis was engaged to May Cannan, the poet who wrote that heartbreaking poem about not “dancing down the boulevards’ after the end of WW1. One of my favourites. https://maywedderburncannan.wordpress.com/for-a-girl/

      Now going to track down one of his stories.

      Reply

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