Hang around writing panels at Sci Fi/Fantasy Conventions for any length of time and it won’t be long before you hear a few pieces of advice repeated by multiple panelists. Follow the guidelines. Open with a hook and action. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings.
On the face of it, all of that advice, if not easy to execute, makes perfect sense. Editors want to know that the writers they choose to work with can follow directions and are willing to act professionally. Info dumps at the beginning of a story slow the action and bore the reader. Writers have to be willing to let go of word play, characters, or plot that don’t help move the story.
When I first heard “don’t be afraid to kill your darlings,” my immediate reaction was – of course, why do I even need to be told that? I could see getting too attached to an idea or to some clever turn of phrase I managed to write. I dropped the advice in a mental bin and pushed on. Every now and then I’d delete some piece of writing I adored, sigh, and push on satisfied with myself that I’d just killed a darling.
But after a time, I began to wonder about this phrase and how to effectively use it. After all, one of the problems with “darlings” is that one loves them, and as time goes by and a novice author gets better at the craft and at critiquing their own work, how does an author decide what’s a “darling?” Is that word play, plot, character, etc., a problem child or a masterpiece?
As writers, we can’t always wait for another writer to tell us what does and doesn’t work. A really kind editor might clue us in but usually we’re going to have to figure things out for ourselves. So as basic as it seems, I keep returning to Stephen King and “story, story, story.”
Does your darling plot device help the story move? Is your darling bit of word play too clever, dragging your reader out of the moment and making them aware of you the writer? Does the darling character hold back your story?
It was a character that prompted my eureka moment a few months ago. I’m a novice writer and figured it would be easiest for me to follow the advice to write what I know. Since I don’t actually know what it was like to live in 1846 Key West, the setting of my novel, nor what it is like to throw magic around, I decided to make my protagonist female since I do understand women.
That decision caused me problems that made my head ache. The American South in the 1840s was one of the most repressive periods in the history of women’s rights. In Key West, well bred women didn’t go out of the house after dark. In 1845, Florida enacted legislation that women could own property but not control it. Key West moved by water, but women stayed onshore unless they were passengers. It was a small town. Everyone knew each other, even with all the ship traffic. The island was a man’s world and no way could that be glossed over.
Disguises and magic helped smooth over the problems but the story slowed down. Gene Roddenberry said that the transporter was invented on Star Trek because he needed a mechanism where the crew could travel quickly back and forth from a planet. Loading everyone into the shuttle and having the crew navigate to the planet while the viewers twiddled their thumbs wouldn’t have been good storytelling. My stories had some of the same issue. Readers would quickly get bored with my character changing clothes.
Finally frustration set in and I metaphorically threw down the Key West story and started a different novel. (One of the great tragedies of the computer era is the inability of writers to wad up their writing in disgust and throw the resulting balls of paper on the floor, off the wall, at the cat…)
Wisps of another story had been drifting through my head and I decided to write that one with a female lead, returning later to the Key West story using a male protagonist. My brain screamed in triumph until a tiny upstart voice in my head demanded to know why if I intended to return to the Key West novel anyway couldn’t I just write the male protagonist first for a novel I’d already researched extensively? Why was I so insistent on a woman? It took a wheelbarrow of bricks upside my head, but I realized I was clutching onto my first novel having a female lead, not because a female protagonist made sense, but because of an arbitrary decision I’d made that had no relationship to the needs of the story.
Twenty minutes of plotting later, and chapter ideas poured forth. Plot lines that would have been difficult and clumsy to execute for the female character because of the time period disappeared and I could concentrate on telling the story I wanted, not working around the gender problem.
I am not advocating that every time you run into a problem with your story that you give up and start over. Sometimes interesting storylines arise from the problems that authors must navigate around. But if your story is not moving forward and your desk is showing indentations from your frequent head bangs against it, take some time and examine the problem. Maybe you need to step away from the keyboard, rethink what your story needs, and murder that darling that is holding you and your story hostage.