Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Don’t kill your darlings

A few days ago, Ann Leckie wrote this series of tweets about the “kill your darlings” advice:

Yeah, this is definitely a thing. Much commonly passed writing advice is aimed at “remove anything inessential” and for a particular, very specific kind of story it’s probably mostly ok advice. But–look at that “essential.” What’s essential?

Longish thread, click through and read it if you’re so inclined.

Now I see that Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds picked this up and wrote a good post drawing on this topic: THE OPPOSITE OF “KILL YOUR DARLINGS

It is, taken lightly, good advice.

It is, taken rigorously, very bad advice.

Why, taken rigorously, is it bad advice?

It’s bad because it presupposes to know what is essential in a story. A story, we are then lead to believe, is a concise series of narrative events, and anything that does not move them forward is chaff that must be separated from the wheat lest the story-food be chewy and unpleasant. …

In a story, what’s essential?

Beginning, middle, end?

Character doing stuff, saying stuff?

Is a character’s description essential? How much is essential? One sentence? Three adjectives? A paragraph? A page? A whole chapter?

What about the description of family crests and epic meals and massive amounts of diplomacy? That wouldn’t go well in a spare thriller, but in epic fantasy, it’s a feature, not a bug

I would say that a beginning, middle, and end are indeed essential. Everything else is optional.

I remember when an editor asked me what a protagonist looked like and I realized I didn’t have a single word about his physical appearance. No hair color, no particular references to height, nothing. Plainly I don’t find character description essential.

Chuck then adds:

Next year, I have a novel out — Wanderers. One day, a young woman finds her sister sleepwalking down the road — the sister cannot be harmed, cannot be stopped, and every mile or three, she’s joined by another sleepwalker. On and on they go, the flock of sleepwalkers growing as their friends and families walk with them as shepherds. We don’t know where they’re going, or why, or for what purpose sinister or benevolent, and that’s what the book is about — that mystery, and those people. The book is 280,000 words. It’ll be in the 700-800 page range when it finally bursts its copy-editing cocoon and becomes its MIGHTY WINGED BOOK FORM. It’s a huge-ass book. And all along, I had to resist a single piece of writing advice:

Kill your darlings.

On the developmental edit, you know how much total word count I cut?

Nothing.

I wanted to quote that because … whoa, what a concept. I really like this idea for a suspense / horror type of story. What could possibly be going on?

Also, I’ve definitely added plenty of words during developmental edits. Also cut plenty, but that’s before the editor sees the manuscript, generally. Editorial comments for me usually result in adding words, not cutting.

Well, well, the basic notion is still: No writing advice fits every story or every author, so just get in the habit of ignoring advice that’s wrong for you.

Or as Chuck says:

Know when [your darlings] are a hill you’re willing to die on, even if you do, in fact, die upon it. Know they they’re there. Why you must keep them. Then plant your feet, raise your sword, and demand your darlings be allowed to live.

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