man writing on notebook while sitting on wooden handrail

How To Kill Your Darlings. In Your Writing, I mean. Obviously. Not In Some Creepy Jim Jones Way.

William Faulkner famously urged writers to “Kill your darlings,” and Hemingway would never shut up about some variant of that advice, usually in clean, economical prose. He went so far as to say you should write your story, and then take all of the “best” lines out. Was he in the middle of A) killing something B) divorcing someone C) drinking heavily or D) All of the above as he gave this advice? Most likely.

Yeah, Yeah, Whatever.

Still, I concede it’s good advice. Not a bad rule of thumb. But a rule rule? A thumbless rule? I dunno. Would we like F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Toni Morrison, or James Baldwin half as much if they took our their best lines (I know, I know: what does “Best” mean? Let’s let that lie for today). The problem is, of course, most of us aren’t Fitzgerald, Morrison, or Baldwin. In fact, if I understand these things correctly, none of us are.

Which leaves us with the vexing problem of figuring out just who the hell are we? As writers, not people: I won’t even try to squeeze down that rabbit hole here. This is why it’s so important to have a good editor, or if you’re a playwright like I am, a good director and/or dramaturge.

But Also

Another thing: when we’re starting out, we haven’t learned that there’s a good chance the more we love a line, or a sentence, the more likely it needs to come out ASAP. It’s most likely self-conscious and overwrought. Or if it’s comedy, maybe not as funny as you think. This stage takes a long time. Very much so. More than is comfortable. But, with luck and metric crapload of trying and failing and reading and writing, and re-writing, and rinsing, lathering, repeating, you start to not only develop your own voice, but start to understand it.

Two different things, it turns out. But if you begin to understand what you do best, and how to rely on craft to make it happen, you’re on your way. Well to the next difficult step, anyway.

Understanding that voice. This isn’t always quite the conscious act it sounds like, and that’s very often a good thing. But here’s what sorta sucks. Sometimes what we do well becomes our worst enemy. Because it’s now a trick, a crutch, and a good excuse not to push forward as hard on the other things. But surely if it’s what you do well, you shouldn’t stop doing it, right?

Yeah, Like I Know. Anyone Who’s Watched Me Try to Wrap A Present Wouldn’t Take My Advice ON ANYTHING

I dunno. Depends on who you are as a writer, and how realistic you can be about the quality and type of stuff you’re writing (and good luck with that. You likely wouldn’t have become a writer without at least a little ego, and ego is the arch-nemesis of good re-writing, which is nine times out of 10 the secret sauce). At a guess, I’d say most of us shouldn’t abandon those skill we’ve come by, but always be wary about how and when we use them. Which is, I think, the crux of what Faulkner et al were getting at.

I just had a reading for a new play about Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. They were, if you don’t know, chock full of brilliant quips and loved, loved, loved to talk. Scratch that: Conversation and one-liners were, I think, a pathology for them.

Now, as you’ve no doubt gleaned, I’m a big over-writer. I’m fine with that, because I’ve also learned to become fine (usually) about chucking out a lot of my writing in rehearsals. I always lean towards cutting the damn thing. Even if I really like it. If it slows the momentum down or doesn’t work like you hoped it would (my default position is if something doesn’t work, it’s on me the writer to fix it) , it pays to be a ruthless editor of your own stuff. Like, the you never liked yourself for a minute kind of ruthless. Which for some writers, let’s face it, that first bit’s totally doable.

But with this play, it was a challenge, because I had to balance that instinct with the reality of who these characters – and yes, they were people, but now they’re characters – are. Two people whose natures demanded honoring their stream of quips and flood of language. Also, I only allowed myself five of Parker’s real-life quips and like, two of Benchley’s, which set up my downright hubristic challenge of putting quips in their mouths, which is a little like saying to Mozart, “Here, I wrote a tune for you. I think you’ll enjoy it.”

Help: You Need Somebody; Help: Not Just Anybody

I had the advantage of having really good and really smart actors – you’d be surprised how the two qualities don’t always totally overlap, as well as a very smart director. Together, we’d all pitch in with editing suggestions, which, if you’re insecure about you’re writing, you’re going to let your ego become defensive. I’m a carnival of insecurity in real life. My memoir will likely be titled, I Apologize for Inadequately Assessing My Inadequacies.

But with writing, I think I have the correct ratio, more days than not, of eagerness to hear smart criticism. By the way, learning how to separate the smart from the not-so-smart criticisms should be like, 3/4 of any writing course. I’m far from infallible at it, but my rule of thumb is: are they critiquing your work, or arguing why you should write the play/novel/story that they would write?

But also stand my ground when I, open-minded as I am, still feel I’m right. Of course, feeling I’ve reached a good place in this is a clear sign I need to constantly reevaluate that belief.

Do I Contradict Myself? Very Well, I Contradict Myself

I wrote a post a while ago about my skepticism of writing advice, and would personally feel uncomfortable offering any. And yet here we are.

I think it’s because this last play forced me to wrestle with the “kill your darlings” axiom more than usual. So, I’m probably doing this at least as much for myself as anyone who may stumble across it. Sorry.

The main reason I feel unqualified to offer advice– apart from not being on the level of William Faulkner – is that, if we’re both honest, I’m not you. You are the best judge of your writing. Or at least, you’d better learn to be.

And I think that’s pretty hard. Trying to learn to be objective about an innately subjective craft based in which your material is drawn inevitably from yourself, about whom, I hate to be the one to break it to you, you’re probably at least a little subjective, well, yikes.

It’s a hard gig, I’ve found. But then, that’s why it feels good. Sometimes. I occasionally wonder what I have a better chance of totally grasping: my writing or my life. It’s a false choice, of course. That’s the whole point. In the end, I think one writer said it best: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” Well sure, Shakespeare, you make it sound easy because you’re Shakespeare.

And even that guy wrote stuff like Timon of Athens on occasion. That’s kind of a comfort, though, right? We’ll never get it totally right, or even, for the vast majority of us, mostly right. Not the point. The point is trying to get it right with every atom in your body and soul, while accepting you’re bound to fail. We can only hope, to quote Samuel Beckett, you’ll “fail better.”

My Opinions are Not Necessarily The Opinions of This Blog or Even Myself

But that’s just me. Feel free to let me know where you think I’ve got it wrong and why. Cos I promise you, I have. And will continue to.

Incidentally, I had an amazing last sentence for this, but I ended up cutting it.

Speaking of killing, would it kill you to follow me on Twitter and Instagram @jackcanfora ? There’s almost zero chance it would. But there’s only one way to find out.

12 thoughts on “How To Kill Your Darlings. In Your Writing, I mean. Obviously. Not In Some Creepy Jim Jones Way.

  1. Loved this post! I wouldn’t change a word. Thank you for sharing “your” writing, through your unique voice.

  2. Cutting your ‘darlings’ must be pretty hard, but I enjoyed your play reading, and perhaps some of the pregnant pauses were ghosts of the dispatched darlings? Maybe a combination of things, but the dynamic direction was really helpful, as was the material in the first place. Perhaps the absence of the darlings make for the richness of the pauses? What do I know? Never as much as I think, but I hope this play sees a full production!

    1. Oh that was so nice of you to watch! I’m glad you liked it. The pauses were actually written in for the most part. The actors are amazing. But like I said, they talk quickly and a lot and half of their quips aren’t even conscious on their part; it’s sometimes like a tic, and also a great deflection tool. So I cut anything that wasn’t really strong material (according to the group), although there were one or two quips I kept even though I knew they’d go by too quickly to notice and get a laugh.

      In any other play, I’d cut them, but Parker would absolutely have done that, so I got a little license there, lol. Thanks again for tuning in!!

  3. I’ve never heard of “cutting your darlings” before but at a minimum it sounds like an amazing way to- as you stated- push ourselves further. I think I’ll have to try this!! What a fabulous writing prompt!

  4. Yeah, it’s just a good guardrail, I think. It forces you to check in frequently and ask, “Is this helping the story in some way – character, plot, theme, etc, – or do I like this because it make the writer look good.” This is a good reminder in plays, poetry, prose, you name it.

  5. Stephen King is not a good writer but he has great plot ideas. The stuff he turns in to his editor is turgid and bloated and full of extraneous material. His editor is the great writer who separates the wheat from the chaff.

      1. One example is The Stand. The edited version is a tightly written novel despite being fairly long. The unedited version came onto the market later, probably as a way to sell more books. It was a bloated monster. I got bored and dropped it because all the extra stuff added nothing.

        I have heard about King discussing his relationship with his editor.

  6. Intriguing pilot! You seem to be American, but it reminded me so much of great British television! There’s just one thing I noticed that was a little off-kilter, IMHO: the final bit where the mother insists she’s not speaking to her son when they’re on speaker phone. It’s not clear to the viewer whether she’s just persistent like that or maybe not aware she’s on speaker phone? Anyway, great pilot! Good luck with this project and others! 🙂

Leave a Reply