Monday, July 29, 2013

Kill Your Darlings?

Years ago - in about 2005, I think it was - I attended a workshop at Bloody Words in Toronto where Rick Blechta was dispensing advice to wannabe authors. I am pretty sure he had a lot of good things to say; Rick usually does. One of the tips he passed along to the assembled throng (not sure how big the throng was, but I was not the only one in attendance, for sure) was to stay with the story, and exclude anything, no matter how good it was, or how good you thought it was, if it did not move the story forward. I remember he gave an example of a piece of writing in a book he was working on that he really, really liked. His editor agreed that it comprised some of the best writing in the draft. And then told him to delete it. Which he did.

Sometimes you just have to do that, however much it hurts.

Which, in the complex vernacular of writers is "killing your darlings".

I was only vaguely aware of the phrase until today when I finally got around to reading an opinion piece in the New York Times from last week, that I printed off on July 22, but only got around to this morning. And herewith a confession. I print off a lot of stuff from the Times, and from other papers too, but don't always get around to reading them right away. (It's the same with books; books are my "Linus Blankets"; I need to have them near me, and around me, but probably read only about half the ones I buy.)

The Times piece in question is by Ben Yagoda, who is a Professor of English at the University of Delaware. Yagoda reckons that "Kill your darlings" is one of the three most famous writing mottoes. It's usually ascribed to the American writer (and Nobel Prize laureate from 1949) William Faulkner (1897-1962),

William Faulkner 1949.jpg

but was more likely penned by an Englishman, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944):

Arthur Quiller-Couch.jpg

In addition to being a prolific writer of fiction, verse and critical pieces, Quiller-Couch is remembered as one of the few authors of note whose name begins with the letter "Q".

You can read Yagoda's piece here:

The second important motto noted is "Show, don't tell". In describing a scene, one should try and make the reader feel that he/she is right there in the moment, and not getting the story second-hand. Another confession. I was taken to task by a writer friend when my third book, Death Of A Lesser Man, came out; too much having characters tell what happened, he said, instead of having the characters "live the moment". Good advice, which I will keep in mind if I ever manage to finish the book I am working on.

Another piece of good advice; eschew adjectives and adverbs - especially adverbs - wherever possible, and go with strong nouns and verbs. Which is something I heartily agree with. In one of my books, I have my protagonist Stride opine, while reading a vaporous inquest report, that "the road to literary hell is paved with adverbs". Which I believe it is.

(Does anyone else out there remember the spate of "Tom Swifties" that came out in the 1960's? They were punningly awful word play on the use of adverbs, which I gather were rife in the Tom Swift books for growing boys. Here's a couple: "I need a pencil sharpener," said Tom bluntly. "I can no longer hear anything," said Tom deftly. And just one more: "I only have diamonds, clubs and spades," said Tom heartlessly.)

And now we move on.

Then there is "Write what you know". It's hard to argue with that directive. I adhered to that when I started writing my Inspector Stride mysteries. I had tried writing for years, on and off, and it was only when I decided to go back - metaphorically speaking - to the city where I grew up, St. John's, that the words and ideas started to flow. And not only to the place, but also to the time when I was very young and my strongest impressions of the place were formed. I don't have the same feeling for the city now that I had back then, in the late 1940's, and that was key to the successful writing.

I will leave to the reader to take in Yagoda's Times piece; it really is worth reading. I will note, though, that he plays anagramattical word games with motto #3. Writing "what you know" can become, perhaps, a bit oppressive, and one could end up "Writing what you wonk". Until I read this clever bit, it had not occurred to me that "wonk" was an anagram for "know"; and in fact is "know" spelled backwards. Live and learn, I guess.

Yagoda goes one further. Take the motto one more step, work the anagramattical magic, and you have - wait for it! - "Write what you own, K?"

I will finish this post with a direct quote from Yagoda's piece:

Robert Graves and Alan Hodge called their guide to writing “The Reader Over Your Shoulder,” and it’s an apt metaphor, bringing to mind a little guy perched up there, looking over your stuff and reacting the way a hypothetical reader might. I actually prefer to think in terms of an imagined face-to-face encounter, with eye contact the operative metaphor. Bad conversationalists and bad writers look out into the distance or at the floor, and don’t notice when their listeners’ faces are puzzled, annoyed or bored. Good writers perceive that and respond. And the best writers anticipate these reactions, and consequently are able to avoid them.

A really good thought.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

Tom, I think "write what you know" is often given a too limited twist. It's interpreted as write what you have experienced, in which case there would be few historical novels.