Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Kill Your Darlings


Yesterday we discussed several applications of the dictum "kill your darlings," including the literal contrivance of offing a character's "darlings," and the over-use of dead babies and small children as cheapened and cheap psychological manipulation tossed in as backstory motivation.
I don't like hypocrites.
I really don't like discovering I may have been hypocritical in condemning other writers for what I may have done myself.
Here is a passage from La Belle Dame.
The "child" is not dead, however.
You decide.

She watched him return. He wore his policeman's face.
He put the hamper carefully on the ground. He carefully draped the shawl around her shoulders. He carefully unzipped the drink bag and handed her a bottle of fruit juice and opened one for himself.
He sat carefully beside her and turned, his grey eyes impersonal, official.

Something's coming, she thought.
The clouds sailed high, remote, self-contained, indifferent to the landscape below.
She clasped the bottle in her lap and waited.
"Damie. I have some unpleasant news."
Unpleasant?
"There's been an incident."
Unpleasant? An euphemism? What was he trying to say?
"It concerns Afghanistan..."
His words dropped like bleach.
"Michael?" He lips felt stiff, as if she'd come from the dentist.
"Not Michael? Please?"
Michael. Her quiet son. In Special Ops. In Afghanistan. In the dusty wadis and barren hills in far Afghanistan. His duty. His belief. He had warned her.

John swore.
She heard that in the darkness.
I must not, she thought. I must not fall down.
His voice came from very far away.
"NO! Damie, it's alright! Not your son."
She found she had both fists tight between her breasts. The juice bottle rolled and gurgled on the grass beyond.
He swore again. His voice was closer this time
.
"Damie, not your son. Damie!"
His hands were hard on her shoulders, shaking her.
She winced. She was already bruised there, she was sure.
"Not Michael? John? True? Please?"
"NO, not that, nothing like that...Oh, bloody hell, it never occurred to me you'd read it that way."
Her eyes burned. She took quick gasping breaths against his shirt front. His hands were warm and hard on her back.
Finally her breathing slowed and she sat back.
She looked at him, rubbing the button mark on her cheek, waiting.

38 comments:

Erik Ivan James said...

...."The juice bottle rolled and gurgled on the grass beyond."....

Priceless.
The stuff of the really good writer.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Wonderful passage, Bernita! You have such a fluid style.

I don't think this qualifies as a cheap trick at all (having read through yesterday's discussion). There is a huge difference between making a character vulnerable by having a psycho/estranged parent/car crash murder a small child, and illustrating the very real fear mothers experience when their babies are soldiers and actively fighting a war.

Well done. :-)

MissWrite said...

It's a really nice passage, Bernita. How 'cheap' the trick (for some reason I just had a clang of heavy metal music sound in my head. lol) depends on the story. I doubt yours qualifies as a taudry attempt at emotional blackmail.

Scott said...

The passage works very well for me, regardless of whether it is a cheap trick or not. Regardless of what peril is being communicated, I now have a firm grasp of the mothers depth of feeling. How could I not relate to her now?

Bernita said...

Thank you, Erik.
Wrote this very tight, hoping to reflect the unspoken actions. Feared it was too indirect.

Must say I'm relieved, Sonya. Thank you. Was afraid it was choppy.

The kicker(?), Tami, is that she herself is in considerable danger partly BECAUSE her son is in Afghanistan.Thank you.

Ric said...

This passage says volumes! Character development, the still fresh and uncertain relationship between the two, where he must deal with her 'life' before she met him, Mother's love,

just wonderful. I don't think this is cheap theatrics. This is great writing.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Scott. Wonder if it's because the scene is not backstory?

Perhaps I've absorbed some of your skills, Ric, thank you.
As I have said before - whatever would I do without you?

Sela Carsen said...

Not a cheap trick at all. And typical of a man -- not a father -- who wouldn't think that's where her mind would go immediately.

I don't read things with dead babies in them. If I discover one in the midst of a story, I give it away immediately.

Bernita said...

You caught that, Sela? Good! But then your internal analysis is always acute, know that from reading your stuff.

It's a personal hot button for me as well. My anxieties about my own were wringing enough.

Robyn said...

Absolutely, Sela. Even the most optimistic of women have a bad case of Worst Possible Scenario when the kids are involved.

I love the 'button mark' line. Tells me everything I need to know about the embrace.

December Quinn said...

I don't think it's cheap at all, Bernita. Aside from being incredibly well-written (I so want to know what happens next), it's not some shortcut to get us to feel sympathy for Damie.

What bugs me is when there's no reason for such incidents, or they're used as crutches to provide character.

I'm with you, though, Sela. I generally stop reading such books.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I agree with the consensus...That wasn't a cheap trick! It was good for character development.

I think I combined both the 'cheap trick' and character development in my manuscript. I deliberately wanted readers to feel sorry for the boy at the beginning...who turns out to be the maniac at the end, because of the beginning....does that make sense! LOL!

Bernita said...

That pleases me very much, Robyn.
Did wonder if I transgressed those conventions that determine that every sigh must be described at length.

Very glad you perceive the scene that way, December. Thank you.
It is mentioned much, much earlier that he's in Afghanistan.

Thank you, Bonnie, the scene begins another plot twist as well.
Your thing doesn't sound cheap at all, rather in character as some types are extremely clever at portraying themselves as victims to suck in sympathy.

I will now stop slapping myself up the side of the head.

kmfrontain said...

I think it was perfect, how she almost fainted from relief after the shock. I don't think it qualifies, really, as murdering one's babies, or even a cheap imitation of murdering one's babies. It's more a great example of characters becaming more real. Making the characters real is a damn fine accomplishment.

Daisy Dexter Dobbs said...

“His words dropped like bleach.”

Loved that, Bernita. Created a poignant visual for me. You’ve done a splendid job capturing and holding your audience’s attention with this passage.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Karen and Daisy.
All of you.
So MUCH!
Though it's a short scene, everyone seems to have found a different detail that they liked.
I shall take that as encouragement.

M.E Ellis said...

I didn't read past the three uses of 'carefully' I'm afraid!

:o)

Bernita said...

~shrugs~
Some people cannot abide even deliberate repetition.
It's a chance one takes.

Anonymous said...

Tiresome.

M.E Ellis said...

I'm terrible for it. Like I said in my post below this one, my brain doesn't allow me to read on. I probably miss many good works because of this.

Sorry. I should have explained better, instead of just saying I couldn't get past them.

*must think before pressing publish*


:o(

Bernita said...

I agree.
Anonymous posters definitely are tiresome.

No problem, Michelle.

Seems to be the latest hate stick.
Noticed on another blog someone complaining about a hapless writer's use of "she" - to the point I wondered if "the" turned him off too.
I use "purposeful" repetition on occasion with malice aforethought. Just to warn you so you may skip any of my WIP in the future.

M.E Ellis said...

I've been thinking about your repetition while visiting other blogs.

The problem with excerpts is that those reps could have a significant meaning in the prose that came before it, and it wouldn't irk had the previous words been read (if that makes sense).

It's just one of my weird quirks. I hate it that my mind does it. I suppose having it drilled into me by a creative writing teacher that reps are a no no, obviously stuck in my mind a little too much. actually didn't mind them until he taught me.

Bummer.

Agree. Anon posting is odd. Wonder why they can't just say it as themselves.

:o)

Bernita said...

Funny!
Had it drilled into me that judicious use of deliberate repetition was desirable!
An effective tool in the right place!

Dennie McDonald said...

what was your question? I don't think that compares to what you're talking about... mothers are what they are - they want to protect and keep their kids safe... so yep - shows her as another demention...

Bernita said...

I'm glad you don't think it falls under the interdict, Dennie, thank you.

But wotinhell do you mean by "shows her as another demention"?

Dennie McDonald said...

shows her caring motherly side - not just the other stuff y'know...

sorry if that's not any clearer - school starts in 8 days so I am a little giddy and not thinking straight as I imagine all the quiet time - hehehe - okay Mini-me is only in school twice a week but still....

Bernita said...

Ah, I get it, a typo - she's not another nut, it's another dimension to her character.
You're the one who is half-demented, trying to get everything organized.

EA Monroe said...

You go, Bernita!
Don't let anyone or anything discourage you! Especially anonomyous, fearful busybodies. You've got a lot of courage just to put it out there! How else do we learn to get better? You've got a lot of friends who support you! And willing to offer "constructive" advice.

Bernita said...

Thank you, EA. I appreciate your words.
People have been encouraging and very, very helpful and constructive, and if something jars them they are always capable of explaining why it doesn't work. That's gold.
And just putting a snippet up forces one to take (yet another) look at a scene.

Likely just a fly-by taking a brief pause to re-adjust its broom and spit out a little spite.

kmfrontain said...

I looked at the repetition of carefully as well. The passage can work without it, but would lose a certain feel. At the most, I'd get rid of carefully number four, if I were to get rid of any without altering sentence structure. I tend to use repetition in one sentence when I can. (And then we get into the big no-no of the loooooong sentence. Gasp! ;-) You should blog about the supposed short attention span of readers, Bernita.)

A little writing exercise below. The carefully passage done three different ways.

Original: He put the hamper carefully on the ground. He carefully draped the shawl around her shoulders. He carefully unzipped the drink bag and handed her a bottle of fruit juice and opened one for himself.
He sat carefully beside her and turned, his grey eyes impersonal, official.

No carefully's: He put the hamper on the ground. He draped the shawl around her shoulders. He unzipped the drink bag and handed her a bottle of fruit juice and opened one for himself. He sat beside her and turned, his grey eyes impersonal, official.

Some alterations to sentence structure: He put the hamper carefully on the ground. He carefully draped the shawl around her shoulders, carefully unzipped the drink bag, handed her a bottle of fruit juice and opened one for himself, sat carefully beside her and turned -- his grey eyes, impersonal, official.

Whenever I'm not sure of a passage, I'll cut and paste to separate it, and look at it alone in different guises until I get one that seems to work best within the original story. This works well for an author (or editor) when a piece is being critiqued (not that you put yours for critiquing) and there are differences in opinion about it. I'd call option number two as coming from the modern minimalists view of writing. But as you are going for your own style, the carefully's have their uses. Style is like a signature. Minimalist writing tends to give one signature, no matter who writes with that style.

kmfrontain said...

I looked at the repetition of carefully as well. The passage can work without it, but would lose a certain feel. At the most, I'd get rid of carefully number four, if I were to get rid of any without altering sentence structure. I tend to use repetition in one sentence when I can. (And then we get into the big no-no of the loooooong sentence. Gasp! ;-) You should blog about the supposed short attention span of readers, Bernita.)

A little writing exercise below. The carefully passage done three different ways.

Original: He put the hamper carefully on the ground. He carefully draped the shawl around her shoulders. He carefully unzipped the drink bag and handed her a bottle of fruit juice and opened one for himself.
He sat carefully beside her and turned, his grey eyes impersonal, official.

No carefully's: He put the hamper on the ground. He draped the shawl around her shoulders. He unzipped the drink bag and handed her a bottle of fruit juice and opened one for himself. He sat beside her and turned, his grey eyes impersonal, official.

Some alterations to sentence structure: He put the hamper carefully on the ground. He carefully draped the shawl around her shoulders, carefully unzipped the drink bag, handed her a bottle of fruit juice and opened one for himself, sat carefully beside her and turned -- his grey eyes, impersonal, official.

Whenever I'm not sure of a passage, I'll cut and paste to separate it, and look at it alone in different guises until I get one that seems to work best within the original story. This works well for an author (or editor) when a piece is being critiqued (not that you put yours for critiquing) and there are differences in opinion about it. I'd call option number two as coming from the modern minimalists view of writing. But as you are going for your own style, the carefully's have their uses. Style is like a signature. Minimalist writing tends to give one signature, no matter who writes with that style.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Karen.
An excellent exercise that I don't do often enough.
I did dither over four being one too many but couldn't decide which action least required the emphasis to show his reluctance and urge to buy time. Probably the last, as you say.

kmfrontain said...

My mom once said this thing about groups of things, fish for one, fish in a fish tank. Odd numbers are for some reason more pleasant to look at. It works in writin too. Odd numbers can be magical, and in an artistic sense.

M.E Ellis said...

I've since found out that particular teacher was a writer in disguise but the damage regarding reps has already been done in my mind.

Maybe I should teach myself to accept them!

:o)

Bernita said...

You're right, Karen and doing three's is a favourite rule of mine - that I broke.

Not accept exactly, Michelle.
Have seen times myself when repetitions are accidental and irritating and sloppy.
Posters caught me in one a few months ago in my WIP - thankfully.
Stupid repetition of a phrase that served no earthly purpose.
The thing is not ALL reps are automatically bad.

Devon Ellington said...

I find that if I must remove one of my "darlings" from one piece, the strong ones will always return in another.

Lovely passage, by the way. It makes me want to stay very still and experience it with each of the senses.

Devon
Ink in My Coffee

Ballpoint Wren said...

I don't know, but it seems that John is a pretty insensitive guy, opening the conversation like that. Just from this passage, I don't like him!

And as always, Bernita, you are really good with the pen.

Bernita said...

A charming compliment, Devon, thank you.
I suspect you have a good idea which are killable and which are not.

Thank you, Bonnie.
Poor John. He's a cop, but not a parent, and since she's always been pretty unflappable it just never occured to him.