Don’t Murder Your Darlings; Put Them on a Diet Instead

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “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.”

For decades, this axiom has been touted by many writers, those dwelling in the limelight of their prestigious careers as well as those struggling to brand their imprint into the minds of the reading population. In the beginning, my attempts at wordsmithing were tentative and insecure and so it logically came to me that I should take the advice of writers whom I adored when it came to crafting my own stories. Murder my darlings, they told me. Kill your darlings, every single one of them they advised.

And so with my first novel, I armed myself and began hunting them down. They were easy targets, trapped on the pages of the manuscript, caught unaware as I began to slash at them, the blade of my Katana gleaming wickedly beneath the light of my writing lamp, ink-blood smearing my hands as I murdered darling after darling. I was crazed, caught up in my own word genocide, slashing and hacking as if I were a samurai warrior on methamphetamine. I assaulted words, sentences and paragraphs, even entire chapters.

Kill them, murder them all!

When the carnage ended I was spent, near exhaustion, as I surveyed what was left, expecting to see the wondrous beauty of a polished work, a gorgeous butterfly my murderous efforts had freed from such an unsightly chrysalis.

But the butterfly never materialized. In fact, the chrysalis had become even more unsightly.

The end result was that murdering my darlings had turned smooth, winding roads of my novel into ragtag collections of ill-maintained, bone-jarring potholes. So many holes in fact, that I realized it would take me and the Army Corp of Engineers years to repair them all.

Back then I didn’t have the phone number of the Army Corp of Engineers handy. Still don’t by the way, but I doubt they could have helped much. They do great with dams and levees, but I doubt they could have helped me plug the holes in my Swiss cheese novel.

As I woefully read the malodorous mess I had created, something caught my eye. A survivor, a darling I had missed, there between the pot holes, hiding behind a cluster of nouns and adjectives.  Instead of swiping at it with my sword, I took pity on it. Even though portly, bloated with so many words its very fabric was stretched to breaking, it had a rare beauty to it, a warm feeling of invitation that sought to draw me in.

I remember thinking to myself that day that the surviving darling wasn’t that bad to look at. It just needed to trim down to its fighting weight. I told myself that with a little dieting and exercise this darling might just be what’s necessary to move the story forward, maybe even become a memorable passage to the reader.

Having tried mass murder and finding that I was not cut out to indiscriminately cut out, I decided to take the approach of resurrecting my deceased darlings one by one and forcing them through the rigors of extreme exercise and dieting. I helped them trim down, get lean mean and svelte so that they could carry the story forward, and when we finished we all celebrated with a little tofu and sparkling water.

Okay, that’s not entirely accurate. If you must know I had a cheeseburger, fries and a soda.

I put my darlings on a diet not me.