Annihilate Your Darlings

Arthur Quiller-Couch
Arthur Quiller-Couch
(“Quill ‘er couch? I hardly know ‘er!”)

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.”

– Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art of Writing

Every writer has heard the advice “murder your darlings” at some point or another. It’s the witty, shorthand version of “kill the fancy shit, keep the good shit”. If you’ve written something really poetical or magical that just pops off the page, that overwhelms the story around it, that is self-indulgent and solely there to impress other people who are just as clever as you are but that will be utterly lost on everyone else: it needs to go. Stories ain’t got room for passages that aren’t team players. There can’t be divas, prima ballerinas, or ball-hogs in writing.

This is often extended to mean that if there are parts that you love but that just don’t work in the context of the story… Well, those gotta get the axe, too. It’s a tough world, out there. Fiction doesn’t allow for Randian individualism. In this scenario, you’re the Handicapper General. Everything needs to fall in line.

So, even though I am typically loath to take advice from guys who write under the pseudonym “Q”, you gotta admit that Quiller-Couch is on to something.

Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation
“Suspicious, is it not, mon capitaine?”

So the next logical question is: at what point do you realize that the entire novel you have written is literally nothing but darlings that must be murdered? That you must nuke it from orbit to be sure, then drill deep into the still-cooling, gray-green glass of the devastation to recover intact plot points and characters and begin all over again?

Well, I don’t have a step-by-step system of if/then statements to offer you to determine that fact, but I know that all writers have perpetrated some heinous crimes against the written word in the name of practicing their art. You may not have been able to see it at the time, but you can easily recognize now why those things don’t work at all. Even if it’s not the skill put into executing the story, there’s always something else. There’s a main character who is insufferable, or a theme that is utterly broken and can’t be fixed without starting from square one, or there are Unfortunate Implications galore that require the entire thing to be burned to the ground.

I mentioned previously, albeit briefly, that my novel from 2014, The Black Hat Initiative, needs to be trashed and rewritten. I certainly can’t tell you how to look at your novel and decide that you need to go scorched earth on it, but I can at least provide insight into how I made the determination with mine.

Setting and Action

The first and most egregious disconnect in Hat is that it takes place in a kind of super-science Hogwarts that allows teenagers, by virtue of technologically advanced hats, to have what are, in essence, superpowers. There are hat puns galore, and the primary villain is even called a Mad Hatter (which I am not even the least bit sorry for).

This would be all well and good if I were writing a story that matched that setting in tone and scope. However, the action of the novel (because I was mostly making it up as I went along due to my very thin outline) turned out to be less Harry Potter and more Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Giant, bleeding decapitated head
Ha ha ha hat puns OH JESUS CHRIST

It became apparent to me when rereading Hat that the whimsical setting and the sudden profligation of militaristic, conspiratorial, and Lovecraftian elements were not a good match for each other. Not only that, but there was no easy fix for it, because the setting was shot through the entire narrative. Based on this alone, the whole shebang had to go.

The Solution: When rewriting, couch the story in a setting that actually works with the story rather than playing against it. Luckily, I had a setting I’d been working on for a tabletop game that fit the bill perfectly.

Characterization (or Lack Thereof)

For a very long time I’ve been a brutally inconvenient combination of plot!smart and character!stupid. I never had any trouble coming up with things for my characters to do, but when it came to pinning down things for them to feel I’ve always found myself at a loss. I’ve also had a terrible time with confrontations that are anything but physical altercations; I’ll write a fight scene at the drop of a hat, but the thought of writing an argument makes me want to crawl under a rock and take up cross-stitching.

Hat was no different, in this regard. It didn’t help that I started off with an outline that wedged all the characters into very specific slots that followed very specific YA tropes. I even had the requisite love triangle in there. Everything was cookie-cutter perfect.

And then I realized like 60% of the way through that oh haha well the heroine is actually falling for the punk rocker chick who is the party’s Big Guy and I guess she’s got this overachieving sister who’s given her an inferiority complex and I figured maybe I’d stumbled across the solution for the pervasive feeling of two-dimensionality that I’d identified while I was writing but in reality by the end of the draft I’d only started scratching the surface of making halfway decent characters.

You can see the problem I wound up with. I had about 100k words where the characters, the primary load-bearing members in a story, were so thin they made monomolecular wire look robust. There was a shitload of stuff going on around them, but not nearly enough happening inside.

Luckily, I learned a lot about how to interlace character development with plot while writing The Magician’s Ghost this past year, so I now have all that knowledge to put into effect for the complete rebuild of Hat.

The Solution: When outlining the rewrite, make sure that the characters not only have an inner life that keeps them existing offscreen, but that they have things they believe in hard enough or fear deeply enough that they’re willing to butt heads with their companions.

Unevenness in Quality

One of the brutal truths that nobody ever really addresses is that, while it’s good that you’re always growing and developing as a writer, it also means that it’s damned near impossible to take years to write a novel and have it come out looking the least bit coherent. This only gets truer the younger you are when starting said novel.

The me that started Hat back in 2011 was a completely different me than the one who finished it in 2014, who was, in turn, a completely different me than the one sitting here today. I’m not a huge fan of admitting it, but there were a lot of awkward growing pains that happened during those three years, and by God does it show in the rough draft. The start of the novel wasn’t bad by any means, but it also wasn’t particularly good. It was in that horrendous, twilit region where you read it and you can tell that something is just not right, but there’s no way to fix it with a bit of editing here or a touch of rephrasing there. There’s a mediocrity that is shot through the whole thing like marbling in Kobe beef.

Two slabs of Kobe beef
Like this, but less delicious.
By Orlando G. Calvo [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I’d previously sighed and made peace with myself that more than half of the book would have to be rewritten before I was done with it, but going back and rereading it, seeing how big the gulf was… Well, that just went to show that I needed to dial back to the drawing board and take another run at it.

The Solution: Torch the damn thing and collect the insurance money.


Those are the three main indicators that I had to just start from scratch with Hat. And that’s good, it’s really fine, because it means that I don’t need to spend time trying to bail out a sinking ship. It’s a useful skill, being able to recognize when a project is done, regardless of whether it’s ready for publication or the circular file. As I’ve said before, I learned a lot while writing Hat that is absolutely invaluable to me. I learned about what does and doesn’t work for my overall process, and now I’ve learned that there is a time to just let it go.

So! Anybody out there ever had to scrap a novel because it just didn’t work? Why didn’t it work? Are you planning on rewriting it? Share your thoughts in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Annihilate Your Darlings

  1. Fun fact: I scrapped a novel I started writing back in 2005. It had gone through so many revisions, and you could absolutely see the fingerprints of professors, critique partners, and pretty much everyone else who read parts of it. The thing is, you really couldn’t see MY fingerprints at all. So, after trying to write it for about 6 years, I scrapped it. I knew it was time to kill my darlings because everyone else had basically been stabbing it and letting it bleed out for years.

    AND THEN!

    Then, I started thinking about the plot of that story — the plot I originally wanted — and found how seamlessly like 80% of the elements fit in with the novel I’m working on right now.

    I AM RESURRECTING MY DARLINGS!

    Also, just a little side note: I find it hilarious that your characters are as non-confrontational as you when it comes to arguments.

    1. DARLING NECROMANCY. It’s the best. I’ve done that so much.

      And absolutely they’re as non-confrontational as I am. This is one of those places where “write what you know” seems to come back to kick me in the face over and over.

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