How I Learned to Kill My Darlings

William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” When I first heard that from my mentor, the late Andre Dubus Jr., I knew what he meant. Don’t show off! It’s about the story, not about you, the author. But this was easier said than done. I’ve always been a pretty good story teller, the sort of person who can hold the attention of a group of people at a dinner table for four or five minutes spinning out one of my favorite tales. Perhaps that’s what led me to believe I could be a writer — the belief that all I had to do was to get these stories down on paper. But I quickly learned it isn’t as simple as that. First of all, good stories told to a group of friends don’t always hold up well as a standalone piece someone might read at bedtime or riding on the commuter train. Sometimes it’s the spirit of the gathering that makes these stories work best, a few bottles of wine and the inflected voice of the storyteller. By the same token, the story may be a stand-alone piece that falls flat or becomes an abstraction if it’s put into a the larger context of a novel. Let me give you an example...
Author:
Publish date:

William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” When I first heard that from my mentor, the late Andre Dubus Jr., I knew what he meant. Don’t show off! It’s about the story, not about you, the author. But this was easier said than done.

I’ve always been a pretty good story teller, the sort of person who can hold the attention of a group of people at a dinner table for four or five minutes spinning out one of my favorite tales. Perhaps that’s what led me to believe I could be a writer — the belief that all I had to do was to get these stories down on paper. But I quickly learned it isn’t as simple as that. First of all, good stories told to a group of friends don’t always hold up well as a standalone piece someone might read at bedtime or riding on the commuter train. Sometimes it’s the spirit of the gathering that makes these stories work best, a few bottles of wine and the inflected voice of the storyteller. By the same token, the story may be a stand-alone piece that falls flat or becomes an abstraction if it’s put into a the larger context of a novel. Let me give you an example...

(Can your query be longer than one page?)

james-whitfield-thompson
lies-you-wanted-to-hear-cover

Column by James Whitfield Thomson, author of LIES YOU WANT TO HEAR
(Sourcebooks Landmark, Nov. 2013), chosen by public librarians for the November
list of LibraryReads, and Redbook magazine's book of the month for November 2013.
James Whitfield Thomson grew up on the North Side of Pittsburgh and attended
Harvard College. After graduation, he served in the Navy as navigator of a supply
ship off the coast of Vietnam. You can find him at jameswhitfieldthomson.com.

My uncle Mike Drobezko, who was born and raised in Russia, was a coal miner in Western Pennsylvania. He and my Aunt Vaudie and their three children lived in company housing next to the mine. One day there was an explosion in the mine. I don’t know how many miners were killed or injured, but Mike and two pals were trapped. Mike told his friends not to worry, he knew the mine like contours of his own face. There was an abandoned shaft that went under the Allegheny River, which they could take and come out on the other side. As word of the explosion spread, and the families of the miners gathered at the entrance to mine to pray and follow the progress of the rescue effort. Meanwhile, it took Mike and his friends about six hours of digging and wading through chest-deep water, but they emerged from the mine on the other side of the river. None of the rescue workers had thought to look for any survivors there, and Mike and his friends they began walking up the road with their picks and shovels. As they approached the bridge that would take them back to their families, Mike noticed police cars and ambulances sitting on the bridge with their lights flashing and he suddenly got nervous. Ten years before he had jumped ship from a Russian freighter in Philadelphia; he had no papers, and he didn’t want the police officers asking him any questions. So he and his pals did what any God-fearing coal miners would do in that situation; they went to a saloon and got drunk. When Mike straggled home that evening my Aunt Vaudie fell to her knees and thanked the Lord. Neighbors heard the good news and started bringing food for the lucky man; then Vaudie put the kettles on the stove and filled up the copper bathtub. “Oh, that hot water felt so good,” Mike would say as he told the story. “But as soon as I got in the tub, that woman grabbed a broom and beat me like an old rug.”

I put that story in the mouth of an old coal miner at a funeral in my novel, but I ended up cutting it from the final draft. It was one of my darlings, but had little to do with my characters or the plot and it took too long to develop. While the reader might be amused by the story, it was a distraction. Not all distractions are necessarily verboten, but they must be used with great caution. I see this often in stories where the writer waxes into a long, lyrical description of the landscape, which does nothing but make us aware of his facility with language. So too when a writer uses a fifty-cent word. In that case, I would argue, it must be the only word that fits that sentence; otherwise, the obscure word pulls the reader away (usually to the dictionary) and interrupts the flow.

(Would your story make a great movie? Here are 7 tips on writing a film script.)

Let me give you an example from another art form. No matter what role Jack Nicholson is playing, there always seems to be a point when he turns to the camera, cocks an eyebrow and gives us that irrepressible grin. In that moment we recognize him as Jack the actor, not the not the character he’s playing, and, at least for me, in that instant the spell of the movie is broken.

That grin is Jack’s darling — his way of winking at the audience. I suppose all artists do it from time to time, but I try to stop myself as much as I can. My goal is to keep my readers immersed in the story and the characters at hand, no side trips down into the mine no matter how entertaining that diversion may be.

Image placeholder title

The 90 Days to Your Novel 2-Pack is an inspiring
kit that will be your push, your deadline, and your
spark to finally, in three short months, nail that
first draft of your novel. The two items are
bundled together in our shop for a discount.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Image placeholder title

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

Comedy vs. Comity (Grammar Rules)

Comedy vs. Comity (Grammar Rules)

There's nothing funny about learning when to use comedy and comity (OK, maybe a little humor) with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Shugri Said Salh: On Writing the Coming-Of-Age Story

Shugri Said Salh: On Writing the Coming-Of-Age Story

Debut author Shugri Said Salh discusses how wanting to know her mother lead her to writing her coming-of-age novel, The Last Nomad.

100 Ways to Buff Your Book

100 Ways to Buff Your Book

Does your manuscript need a little more definition, but you’re not sure where to begin? Try these 100 tips to give your words more power.

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson discusses how she never gave up on her story, how she worked through internal doubts, and how research lead her out of romance and into historical fiction.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Seven New Courses, Writing Prompts, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce seven new courses, our Editorial Calendar, and more!

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Kentucky’s Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson discusses how each project has its own process and the difference between writing fiction and her new memoir, Perfect Black.

From Script

Approaching Comedy from a Personal Perspective and Tapping into Your Unique Writer’s Voice (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by ScriptMag.com, interviews with masters of comedy, screenwriter Tim Long ('The Simpsons') and writer-director Dan Mazer (Borat Subsequent Movie) about their collaboration on their film 'The Exchange', and filmmaker Trent O’Donnell on his new film 'Ride the Eagle' co-written with actor Jake Johnson ('New Girl'). Plus, tips on how to tap into your unique voice and more!

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not accepting feedback on your writing.

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Here are the top creativity websites as identified in the 23rd Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.