Monday, July 31, 2006

Making a Killing

Kill your darlings...

This Medea apothegm has the status of canonical law in some quarters.
A nice tight aphorism, but what does it mean?
Like all those smoky Delphic thingies, this augury is capable of more than one interpretation.
If it represents a gloss for "Get rid of the floweery bits, Idiot!" I understand.
If it means to cast a jaundiced eye over passages of which you are particularly fond, I'm all for it.
Wise to keep the violins to a minimum.
Need not be the pretty places either - excessive strangulations of blood, gore and dangling viscera can be just as purple.
But waidaminut, this writer's proverb seems predicated on the premise that writers are incapable of developing any critical sense at all, and that any passage of which they are particularly proud is by definition slop-crap and should be hurled to the pigs.
Rather anti-objective subjective, don't you think?
Bear in mind that if a critic likes a passage - it's rich, lyrical writing. If he doesn't - it's deep purple prose.
Every one of these seductive one-liners, these tidy, clever proverbs require examination comparable to the formal inspection of the entrails of sheep.

Another popular interpretation advises that one must find a favourite character(s) and kill 'em off in cold blood.
Wring the withers of your heroes and readers, angst and agony, despair and revenge, pity and fear, catharsis and all those fine, high Greek things.
And, by God, you've writen something above bougeoise genre, you've writen in tragedy.
Well, maybe. But I have a low mind.
While I recognize the advantages of this blunt instrument, don't think I can do that with my WIP.
Have so few characters of substance that it would read like the last stand at Thermopylae.
Besides, there's the matter of principle, a minor theme contained therein that the innocent and the inoffensive are not always food for two-legged predators, toys for malefic fates, or grain for the mills of the gods.

So I ascribe to another precept: Beware the Jabberwock.

Remember: Blogger interview at Flood's. Workshops at Bonnie's: Maassive help.


MissWrite said...

I subscribe to the 'kill'em off' type of theory on this particular idea of writing.

Not necessarily actually killing them. That can get a bit silly, (although I did do it once, and had a reader -- whome I'd never met, so it wasn't expected-- write to me saying, 'I can't believe you KILLED him!!!') but anyway, killing them in the meaning of really turning the screws.

You can't love your characters so much that you're reluctant to really put them into dire circumstances.

Many, many writers take the easy way out with their characters in their story lines. What could be a really gripping plot gets watered down, and fizzles because of it.

Of course, the first application you used to the 'kill your darling' thing applies as well. While certain catch phrases can become iconic 'I'll be back' for instance. Too much of anything gets to be sickening. Even something that really works as a catch phrase should be used sparingly, and one single piece of work shouldn't be littered with a whole bunch of them either.

EA Monroe said...

Frabjous! You have everyone busy thinking this morning, Bernita. And it's Monday, too. I'll have to post something later about this complicated matter! Suffice to say, my darlings tend to disappear under mysterious circumstances only to reappear in the sequel.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what "darlings" are either. Liking something I've written is the goal, not the exception. Perhaps the real rule is sensing when you've gone too far--when you've poured so much effort into a passage that it's gone silly. If so, it's an issue of topography. When Mount Everest soars off the page, you have to smooth it down before your readers come along and bonk their heads into it. They won't thank you for the disruption.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Tami, for expanding on the angst and agony, and that it doesn't always mean a literal "off with their heads."

Even "kill your darlings" has become iconic.

Please do, EA!
Like that possibility of mysterious disappearances and ressurections, hmmmm.
He/she THINKS the other he/she is dead - cue in angony and sorrow - but the reader knows...hmmmm.

A very good example, Jason, no need to dump your reader down a crevass or smother them in an avalanch.

Cynthia Bronco said...

"catharsis and all those fine, high Greek things."
that's a great line... don't kill it!
I think the best writing is when you don't necessarily notice the words but get the meaning. When I encounter artsy, "lyrical" Literary writing, I tend to ditch it and move on to another author, but that's just me I'm sure. I'm impatient. When I read something that makes me laugh, however, (see quote above) I tend to appreciate the language itself much more!

Scott said...

I would have trouble killing a character that I love, but if I did, I know what kinds of revenge I would rain down upon the perpetrator. This is food for thought.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Cynthia.
Irreverence is my besetting sin.

What annoys me most, Scott, is when you see it coming, when you see the author's intent - their feet paddling under the water - time to apply rule # 14 and kill off a charming character now.

kmfrontain said...

The worst thing about the "kill your darlings" maxim is that it encourages inexperienced authors to murder their style. Worse yet, in the hands of a truly bad critiquer, it becomes a bludgeon that could stop a writing career cold.

Bernita said...

Well said, Karen!
Good points!

Erik Ivan James said...


I do believe you've hammered the nail flush! Two excellent points.

Very important topic, Bernita. Thank you.

Carla said...

Seconded for Kmfrontain and Erik. 'Be prepared to murder your darlings if they get in the way of the story' I could accept happily enough, but elevating it to the status of rule seems counterproductive. There again, I tend to be suspicious of rules anyway.

Bernita said...

Exactly, Carla.
It's only ONE of the ways to raise the stakes, create suspense,etc., not the only way.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I'm killing off a character right now...Bwahahaha...and he was a nice guy too, misunderstood but nice!

Maass is really thumping me! I'd forgot so much!

I'm not purple...LOL...I'm brown...ROFLOL!

Bernita said...

One does rather expect a few bodies in a high tension thriller like yours, Bonnie, whether they are good, bad, and indifferent characters.
Sometimes even a mass body count.
I just sayin'...

December Quinn said...

I agree, Bernita. Yes, sometimes somebody dies, and that's just the way it is.

But if I read one more book with a dead child in it...I am so sick of the "automatically make the woman vulnerable by making her lose her child" crap I could scream.

Bernita said...

We're singing a duet, December.
Yes, it's about the worst thing that can happen to a mother, but it has become cliche, cliche, cliche by superficial treatment.

MissWrite said...

Hey, good point, too, December. Not necessarily just the 'dead child' issue, although that would leave me pretty cold if it was just a calculated move to envoke an emotional response toward a different character. But the point of avoiding over used themes, or occurances.

Bernita said...

I have used the FEAR of losing a child.
Maybe I should put up a snippit from La Belle Dame - after checking to make sure I haven't already - to see if anyone thinks I've cliched it.

archer said...

Hmm. There seem to be two KYDs here: (1)Killing off an expendable (and possibly ugly) character and (2) cutting a favorite passage of any kind that really isn't as good as the writer thinks. As to (1), it's always fun to kill the expendable, especially one for whom you've conceived a dislike. (2) is harder. Both Stephen King and Samuel Johnson discuss it: The passage you really adore probably should be cut. Johnson advises quantity over quality for a beginner. He was a notably fast writer and should know, I suppose. It's hard to imagine superworkers like Mencken and GBS having favorite passages--darlings to kill. So I think the admonition means "Don't sit there for two hours refining a sentence--get on with the bloody book." But I do fuss over a sentence for hours sometimes. I think we all do.

Bernita said...

Yes, there are two takes or interpretations here, Archer - character assassination and a slasher script.
While writers may never achieve the absolute objectivity and/or industry sense to fully an coldly examine their own work, they may - and do - learn to edit that work with some success.
After all, that's the reason for the lay-away plan.
I resent the blanket claim that if you the author likes it, it's therefore bad and should be excised.
To argue to the absurd, the only good writing is therefore something the author thinks is total crap.

archer said...

A lot of people agree. Johnson can be very mean. Here is the actual quote:

"I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils:'Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.'"

Of course Johnson also said "None but a blockhead, ever wrote, except for money," even though he wrote a lot of stuff for free.

Bernita said...

The problem with le bon mot is that, while containing a fair degree of truth, it becomes holy writ for the lazy.
I like to look at the emperor now and then - just to check.

December Quinn said...

Thanks, Bernita and Tami. Perhaps it's just me, but it seems I've been reading a lot of books lately where the death of a child is used to set up a supernatural element or make the other characters looke sympathetic. It really bugs me--maybe because I have two little girls, or maybe because I just think it's sloppy writing.

It's usually unecessary. I can think of several different ways to do those books without killing little kids. I wish the author had too. Maybe it's my own stupid prejudices but those books bother me and I'd rather not read them, you know?

M.E Ellis said...

Purple prose - got to be in the mood for writing and reading it, and when I am, I enjoy it.

The majority of the time though, I prefer tight and snappy, to the point prose.

We all like different things. Like me in the above post. My mind stopped reading after the carefully uses. I often wonder if I miss out on a lot of good works when my brain does that. I probably do.


Ballpoint Wren said...

When I was writing strictly for the hopes of a column somewhere, I killed off lots of my little darlings.

I'd start out with 1200 words for what ultimately had to become 700, and hack it down. Often I had to get rid of my favorite parts, because the column was better off without them.

When I read Stephen King's book where he mentioned knocking off your darlings, I felt I knew exactly what he meant.