When Good Advice Goes Bad (part two): Kill Your Darlings

Before I begin today, I wanted to point out that these mini-essays are not meant to say that the advice is bad or shouldn’t be followed. I think it’s good advice. I’m trying to point out ways in which perfectly good advice as perverted or misinterpreted. In the case of yesterday’s topic, Passive Voice, you have advice to avoid using passive voice perverted to mean “take out all the ‘was’ and ‘hads’ in your book.” Which is not what it means.

Also, watched Paycheck yesterday. Now, despite the practically criminal lack of respect John Woo seems to have for logic or the laws of physics, I always enjoy his movies. Is that bad? You really can’t examine his films very long, or the whole thing begins to disintegrate in a series of illogical jumps, improbably moments and bizarre characterization, but they are fun.



At my very first TARA meeting in 2002, the now-bestselling Karen Hawkins gave a lovely speech about writing humor, but in the course of the speech, she gave me one of the best pieces of writing advice I have ever received: Love the book, not the scene. Not the scene, not the line, not the sunset not the quip, not the juicy secondary character, not the saucy shake of the head that the heroine makes. Love the book, not the scene. We’ve all been there. We’ve all written lines, scenes, descriptions, and characters that we absolutely ADORE. They’re so cute, so funny, so poignant, so perfect… well, except for in the service for which they’ve been created, which is to make your book perfect.

You don’t want to lose them, They’re too good to banish from your pages. So you try to work around them, because you know that they aren’t right for the book. At best, this produces a book with an off note, a flat key in the midst of a beautiful melody. At worst you get completely off track with your book, subverting your entire story for the sake of this one perfect scene that you can’t bear to part with.

Stop that. Stop it right now. Love the book, not the scene. Extract it carefully if you must, then preserve it in a little file for wayward scenes that are beautiful — but remove it from your book before it becomes a cancer. Love the book, not the scene. I think it’s Faulkner who calls this “Killing your babies.” I’ve also heard it referred to (by slightly less paternal types) as “killing your darlings.” No matter, it all means the same thing. If you love something, but it doesn’t work, take it out. Love the book, not the scene.

So, how can such a fabulous piece of advice, one of my favorites, be used for evil? Glad you asked. As with many things, it’s all a matter of degrees.

Two years after that fateful workshop with Karen Hawkins, I was at a national conference of a writer’s group in Dallas (do the math), minding my own business in a craft workshop when a multi-published author stood before the crowd of eager young scribblers and told them, “Kill your Darlings.” Fair enough. I began scribbling it down, translating into my head my already oft-repeated Hawkinsinian mantra of “Love the Book, Not the Scene.” (Some people like Ohm mani padme hum, I like this. Sue me.) In fact I was so distracted by the mantra, that I almost missed what she said next, which fair knocked me out of my seat.

In fact, if there’s a part of your story that you find especially wonderful, whatever your favorite piece is, it’s a sure bet that’s the part that has to be cut.

The hell?!?! I then spent the next half hour, hand pressed to my chest in shock, at a lunch table of other workshop attendees who cleaved to that bit of advice, and expounded at length about how self-indulgent and counterproductive it was to keep any part of the story you actually liked in your book. Obviously, if you liked it, it meant it was wrong. (I excused myself early and headed to the bar for a stiff one.)

Are we supposed to be such absolutely wretched judges of our own work that we can’t find beauty in a particular part of the book without it being some sort of subconscious desire to defend it against proper deletion? That is, if one will pardon my coarse speech, horseshit. I will not deny that I have steadfastly clung to bits of scenes and/or lines and defended them unnecessarily against wiser CPs and editors and my own conscience before remembering my mantra. We all do that. But I am not so deluded as to think that the touchstone for whether or not something works should be cut from a book hinges on the degree that I love it. In fact, my favorite scene in my current book is actually my editor’s favorite scene as well. Says so write on the revision letter. ::smugness::

Ideally, I’m in love with every piece of my book, because they make the book, which I love more than all the pieces, work. And, in the process I might fall for a few pieces that don’t work so well. And, those, sadly, I will have to steel myself to excise.

The “Kill Your Darlings” perversion is a classic case of taking a perfectly good piece of advice to a bizarre, literal extreme. Sometimes I wonder about those workshop goers, if they went home and cut out every bit that they liked from their book. Every delicious description of their hero. Every rapid-fire page of sexually-charged banter. Every heartfelt declaration of love. Every part they liked, even the ones that worked, because they liked them. Don’t laugh. People sometimes take these workshop speakers at their word, especially if they are particularly successful.

So the moral of this story is, don’t kill your darlings just because they are darlings. That’s a crappy way to tell if something is bad for your book. Kill them because and only if they don’t work for the story. Love the book, not the scene. (And take everything you hear at a workshop or in an essay or on a writing blog with a grain of salt.)

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17 Responses to When Good Advice Goes Bad (part two): Kill Your Darlings

  1. Cindy Procter-King says:


    You should consider writing an RWR article on this subject!


  2. SavvyChick says:

    I sat in the same workshop Diana and had the same reaction. I can’t believe you were there! I was in total shock as well because I will never cut my favorite scene unless it makes the book better. Ugh.

  3. Heather Davis Koenig says:

    v.g. advice, Diana. Everyone has a favorite line — that doesn’t mean we should delete it. If, however, it’s contained in a scene that isn’t working — by all means axe it. It’s an axe-iom then. 🙂

    More cheese, anyone?

  4. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Oh, heather ::shakes head sadly:: And they say salmon makes you smart. ::ducks from flying fish heads:: I’m just kidding! I’m just kidding!

    Serena, I can’t believe you were there, too! too bad we hadn’t met yet, I could have had company for my tequila shots at the bar.

    Cindy, that would be a nice idea, but I’m sure that the RWR would expect me to like, spellcheck or something. SO much WORK! LOL

  5. Rachel Vincent says:

    After I read yesterday’s essay, which I really liked, I became a little obsessed with trying to identify my own strength in writing (and I blogged about it to work it out in my own head). I finally decided it was prose, but only because I’m better at that than I am at plotting or characterization.

    At first I was excited to have potentially discovered a strength. Then, it hit me. My strength may actually be a liability. I’ve heard this same piece of advice (killing your babies) a lot. Someone once told me that if any single section (or line, paragraph, page, etc…) strikes you as especially beautiful, you should take it out, because readers are drawn out of the story while they’re busy thinking about how pretty that last part was.

    I can see the point of that advice, but it horrified me, because not only do I like to write beautiful prose, I love to read it too. It doesn’t draw me out, it draws me IN. It makes me want more of the same. The idea that I should trash it just because I like it made no sense to me, especially after I’d decided that my prose was better than any other aspect of my writing.

    So I was glad to hear that you don’t think this advice is necessarily always sound.

  6. ZaZa says:

    Gee, on this basis, Judy Cuevas should have burned all her books, because she writes nothing but darlings. Now, if your darling is so much more darling than anything surrounding it, well, that might be a clue. But a clue to what? Maybe work on the rest of your writing? Make it all that beautiful?

    This kill your darlings thing reminds me of a photography teacher I had at Uni. He said, once the photograph is in the camera, it’s dead. You might as well throw the roll of film away undeveloped. Well, multiple bad words. It’s so cliche to spout stuff like that because (you think – not you Diana) it makes you sound erudite and arty and world weary, but it’s just so much horse puckey.

    I think the most important thing is to look at those things that become our darlings and analyze why they are so dear. If it’s furthers “your” personal agenda, then it probably doesn’t further the agenda of the story. If it’s a great little vignette, a gem of a moment, well, maybe you need to decide if that gem is part of the story or just a distraction.

    As writers we need to develop a sense of the flow of our story and be aware of the little shoals that will run it aground.

    I don’t know what your list of “advice” consists of, but I’d like to suggest that bit about making your protag’s life worse with each scene, always give the thumbscrews another turn. How about that one?

  7. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Wow, that’s an even worse reason than “because if you like it, it must be bad!”

    I think Nabokov wrote some of the most beautiful prose ever. Ever. And yes, sometimes, in my readings (multiple) of LOLITA, I was struck dumb by the sheer ecstasy that is reading his phenomenal prose. I would have to catch my breth, etc. etc. And then, I dove again in to the story. It’s the literary equivalent of a kid sliding down a slide into a warm pool,s plashing around, then saying, “Whee! Can I go again?”

    IF the gorgeous prose WORKS for your story and your voice — IF it makes the WHOLE of the book better because it’s there, then it belongs there.

    Sheesh. If only there were so many pretty lines that readers could savor them all.

  8. Diana Peterfreund says:

    That last comment was a response to the advice that Rachel received. Just to clarify.

  9. Charity says:

    Oh, you mentioned Nabokov! That’s one way to get me to de-lurk. You know, a while back I had a (cyber) discussion with someone on your first good gone bad post, whether the use of “was” and other “to be” verbs was passive voice (and I went through the same hoops and sentence examples to no avail). I even brought in the big guns and posted this:

    Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She WAS Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

    What does Nabokov get for his efforts? The toss off comment of: “Well, technically, he overused “was” in this paragraph.”

    Once I stopped weeping for my generation, I backed from the (cyber) room, never to return.

    Great series. Looking forward to more.

  10. Diana Peterfreund says:

    “Well, technically, he overused “was” in this paragraph.”

    Oh, Charity, are you kidding me?!?!?! They really said that? Can you pass the hankie?

    Talk about what Jo Leigh had said about not being able to see the forest for the trees!

    I suppose these people are not big fans of the God who is called “I am”, huh? Okay, all heresy aside…


    All words are tools, to be used by the writer as she sees fit. If you look at a gorgeous table, you have no right to say whether or not the table maker used oak or cherry. If the cherry makes the table warped, then fine.

    Oh, and someone smacked me upside the head the other day on the adverb front, talking about the Anglican wedding ceremony,w hich is beautiful, and that whole “not to be undertaking lightly, but reverently, discretely, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God…”

    So fine. My name is Diana, and I admit that adverbs have their place.

    Go party, Natalie and Teri. ;-P

  11. Sandman7 says:

    Funny you should mention this.

    The first piece of fiction I sold had been edited by a friend of mine who is a professional editor. She advised me that I take out a small paragraph because it wasn’t moving the story along. Even though I liked the paragraph I took it out anyway and saw that she was right. It did help the story.

    The other stuff I liked a lot (including one really funny scene) she said I could keep.

    So you are right, because you like something doesn’t mean it is right for your work but it doesn’t imediately mean it is bad for it.

    Thanks for pointing that out.

  12. Anonymous says:

    New to the writers blogs, just stumbled on this one. I was very impressed with “love the book, not the scene” as I’ve been wrestling with a particular scene, unable to make it fit seamlessly. (tsk, tsk, an adverb.) This general piece of advice has been particularly useful.

  13. Anonymous says:

    This one is widely misunderstood in programming as well. See: http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?KillYourDarlings

    Thank you for clearing this up, I always thought it to be very very wrong

  14. Pingback: Plot Monkeys » Blog Archive » The Writing Process, A Primer

  15. Pingback: What to do: Kill your darlings | turning*turning

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