Saturday , May 25 2024
William Faulkner said, "In writing you must kill your darlings."

Debut Author’s Journey Part Four: Killing Your Darlings

This morning I was cleaning out my old Apothecary’s Curse files, hoping to delete most of the hundreds of drafts, fragments, ideas, scenes, research, and notes from my novel’s bursting-to-the-seams draft folder. It gave me an opportunity as well to scan through the history of writing The Apothecary’s Curse, realizing with a satisfied smile how much of my first draft remained, virtually untouched, in the final version. But, also, how much changed: the narrative structure, the mythological underpinnings of the story, and the nature of the characters’ relationships, and more. kill your darlings

It was fun to remember how each of my main characters and the plot itself changed over the process (even some of the names)–one major character, a villain in draft one, became quite the hero by the final draft. Then there was the realization of just how much had been left on the cutting room floor.

Which brings me to one of the most ruthless rules of novel-writing: “Kill Your Darlings,” a phrase attributed to William Faulkner (or Oscar Wilde, depending on your source).

You’ve carefully crafted the first draft of your novel. Every word you wrote, you meant at the time, at least, to be part of the finished product. But no novel is ready for primetime after only one draft (or three). There will come a time when you must perform necessary surgery on your creation. Perhaps it’s cosmetic surgery, perhaps it’s a heart transplant. But whatever the nature of the operation, you will need a sharp and cold steel scalpel (perhaps a machete).

However you want to put it, a writer must be willing to kill his or her “darlings”–treasured scenes, sometimes very well written scenes–to better serve the novel or a character. Or simply to trim bloat from a manuscript that’s too long. While writing The Apothecary’s Curse, I learned to become a merciless executioner of my darlings (poor dears).

The term especially refers to excising those personal favorite scenes, you know the ones: gorgeous–possibly self-indulgent–prose, overwritten, a bit purplish. The kind that you loved writing, but most readers will roll their eyes (or curl their toes) when reading!

But for the purposes of this piece, I’m broadening the term to mean any extraneous scene that you may love, but does nothing to further the narrative (or deepen readers’ understanding of the character). I’m writing a new novel now, and thought to include a long section on my hero’s experience at the Somme during WWI. The scenes establish his relationship with Kingsley Doyle (Arthur Conan Doyle’s son) and connects my main character with Conan Doyle (which is needed for the story’s main narrative). But the scene, beautifully written as it is, is a tangent, and right at the beginning of the novel. I’m going to have to lose about two-thirds (read: 1,500 words) of it once I circle back to write draft #2.

In writing The Apothecary’s Curse, I cut several significant scenes because the burden of the main story arc shifted from one character to another; others were diary entries (I still love the prose), cut because a wise person suggested that diary entries were not the best way to begin a novel–before you were actually emotionally invested in the character writing the diary. (But what they did do, in the end, was crystallize for me the character’s inner life, which then allowed me to take the essence of the diaries and pull them into his POV, but in third person, not first.)

The first draft of a novel is like a cauldron, you throw everything in there and wait for it to bubble and brew. Some of it even great writing: strange tangents and set pieces, flashbacks to flesh out (whether for the reader–or the writer) characters you’re just getting to know. And by the time the first draft is done, when you know your characters much better, you realize that a particular scene was terrific at getting to your main character’s heart and soul, but is, in the end, gives away too much of it, and has to go.

But as you nip and tuck, euthanize and send to the gallows (but not galleys) beloved turns of phrase and nearly perfect paragraphs, I would caution you not to put them in the trash, but to preserve them. I have found that as I’ve gone back to those early drafts (from before any scene hit the cutting room floor), I’ve plucked several for the sequel (a work-in-progress at this point) where they would fit better. And wouldn’t those diary entries make a nice POV short story? Hmmm.

You just never know. For example, as I was going through the first round of edits after Pyr Apothecary's Curse_coveracquired the novel, I realized there was a particular scene I’d omitted from the final manuscript. Why? I’m not even sure. But it’s a scene that explains something pretty important (although not essential to the overall story). I did a search on my hard drive for a character that only appears in that one scene, and there she was in an earlier draft (phew). I was able to pluck the scene out and drop it where it belonged in the final version.

So, maybe kill your darlings, isn’t exactly appropriate (or a good idea). Maybe put them put them into a stasis pod, ready to be resurrected if–and when–needed.

The Apothecary’s Curse is due out from Prometheus Books (Pyr Imprint) October 11, 2016, and will be available in trade paperback and digital versions from your favorite brick and mortar and online retailers.

A bit of news to close out things out. Pyr is sponsoring a Goodreads ARC giveaway of The Apothecary’s Curse. The giveaway runs July 22-August 5 to win one of 20 print ARCs. Please visit Goodreads and add Apothecary to your shelf, and make sure to enter the giveaway on July 22.

About Barbara Barnett

A Jewish mother and (young 🙃) grandmother, Barbara Barnett is an author and professional Hazzan (Cantor). A member of the Conservative Movement's Cantors Assembly and the Jewish Renewal movement's clergy association OHALAH, the clergy association of the Jewish Renewal movement. In her other life, she is a critically acclaimed fantasy/science fiction author as well as the author of a non-fiction exploration of the TV series House, M.D. and contributor to the book Spiritual Pregnancy. She Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (

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