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13 Jul
2016

“Killing My Darlings?!”

old cemetery headstoneAdvice, often passed along to novice writers, includes that we have to learn to “kill our darlings.” This advice has been attributed to many famous authors such as Falkner, Wilde and King. As writers, we can become very attached to what we consider a brilliant piece of writing, a scene or a character description in earlier drafts, that no longer fits or is not appropriate for the story as it has evolved. Recently, as I worked through needed manuscript revisions and feedback from “early readers” and my editor, I came to the realization that I needed to “kill one of my darlings”. Let me share with you an excerpt from the original story which takes place in Texas in 1878:

 

Susanna

Will stepped up to the door of the tiny house off the noisy main street in Fort Worth… The door opened, he saw the flash of welcome in Susanna’s deep green eyes as a smile spread over her face. He gathered her up to carry her inside, kicking the door shut behind him. With her arms around his neck, he buried his face in her copper hair breathing deeply the sweet fragrance that always seemed to float around her. She giggled as he carried her to the back room depositing her on the bed. He began fumbling to unbutton her dress with one hand while he dropped his overalls with the other. His withered finger didn’t help.
“Let me help you.” She laughed as she finished the buttons and dropped her dress revealing her smooth unblemished skin the shade of Colorado alabaster.
Afterward, he felt more relaxed as he teased her, “I bet you let all the cowboys who come along into your bed like this?” 
Susanna lowered her eyes guiltily and then burst into the laughter that sounded like bells ringing. “You shouldn’t care. You’ll go back to your wife in a few days anyway. You can visit again the next time you’re in town.” 

I resisted this act of murder for a long time, despite advice that I should “kill this darling.” I liked Susanna’s independence.

As a beautiful woman living on her own, Susanna was used to adoration from the cowboys who came into town. Most of them would never settle down to get married. Besides, she liked her own freedom and independence. Of course, the stuffy, nose-in-the-air women in town whispered about her. But, she didn’t care. Their opinions didn’t matter to her. Their lives were controlled by weak men who tried to act powerfully by ordering their wives around. She didn’t want to cater to the demands of such a man every day.  

“Killing” Susanna

This story continues when a former lover/patron of Susanna’s barges into her house, Will gets involved in a gunfight, Susanna is killed and the Texas Rangers are looking for Will. I thought the story helped explain Will’s later behavior as he runs from the law. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that instead of explaining Will’s later behavior, this story only made him more puzzling and really didn’t explain his character at all. I did need to “kill my darling”, dump Susanna and do a major re-write.

But what would be better? The other problem was that “killing” this story meant that something needed to replace it. It is easier to delete than to create. I finally had an idea and as it unfolded, I was excited. When I finished writing, I realized I had a much better story. I needed to overcome my resistance and “kill my darlings” to write a better story.

The Revision

Here is the opening of the revised story:

The hay was tickling his nose but Will didn’t dare sneeze or even move. The voices and footsteps were coming toward theGhost town, Old West scene stables. Will held his breath and wished his pounding heart wasn’t so loud. His throat was dry, his body tense.
“I thought I saw him run this way.” One voice sounded tentative.
The second voice responded chuckling, “Didn’t expect a hay-shoveler to be that fast with a gun.”
“Well, no-one’s going to miss Graham too much, not even his wife. He was a mean SOB,” the first voice spoke again.
A third voice spoke up, “Yea, that’s true but that sod buster did kill him. Maybe he’s not really a sodbuster. Bein’ a Texas Ranger, I…”
“Hey, looking for someone?” He had heard that voice before. Will tried to place it. 
Then the third voice answered, “Yeah, mister, we’re looking for a sod buster in overalls and a vest. Bushwacked a man in the saloon. Have you seen him?”
Will’s breath caught in his throat. Did this guy see him dive into the hay? Who was he anyway? Would he turn him in? He was worried and listened intently. 

As a writer, have you had to dump a favorite passage of your own? Have you had to “kill your darlings”? Or as a reader, do you wish that a writer had deleted a section that didn’t add to the plot or make any sense?

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So, what do you think?

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