Kill Your Darlings and Other Excellent Writing Advice I Hate

After years of tough love from teachers and editors, we all find ways of following all that great advice without it making us crazy.

The line is always about how a writer is their own harshest critic, but we’re usually fans of our own work as well. The same cannot always be said of an audience. That’s why the people who want writers to succeed are often the bearers of hard truths such as, “I know, that line is really cool, but it doesn’t work here,” or, “I get the joke, but I don’t think you noticed that it’s also actually very racist.” Here’s what I’ve learned about taking that tough love in the spirit in which it was intended.

Use a Sensitivity Reader

For the record, I’m a white, queer American. In my fiction I try to give a fair reflection of real-world cultural and racial diversity, but I can never be an expert on adapting someone else’s life and culture for storytelling. Issues with ethnic diversity are often in the spotlight, but the same problems come up with cis-het, abled, and neurotypical folks trying to depict queer communities and the experience of mental illness and physical disability. There are many interesting and inspiring facets to the human experience, and fiction should explore them all! It just needs to explore respectfully, and that’s a skill many of us aren’t taught to apply to our creative works.

First things first, read similar types of stories from within the community you’re looking to include. Read black fantasy, Indian steampunk, and disability-inclusive sci-fi. Read personal blogs about what ADHD, Autism, PTSD, and Depression feel like to the people who have them and how it affects the way they see the world. If you let people show you how they want to be written about, you’re less likely to go astray.

Then you should get an actual for real sensitivity reader. No one expects a writer to try to be creative while also keeping every red flag and dog whistle that communities facing discrimination might read into your text at the forefront of your mind – at least, no one who has experience with creative writing expects that – but someone needs to weed them out before the final draft. A sensitivity reader can help you make the best decisions for your story when you cover difficult topics, and distinguish the good from the trite or insulting.

Stop Describing Things

Fiction needs about one twelfth the number of adjectives to tell a story that you will find in most first drafts. It can be annoying to hear, since describing things is more or less what writing is, but it’s true. If you have an adjective for every noun, an adverb for every verb, and a metaphor for every emotion, what you have is a mess.

Writers usually have a story before they have the words for it, and they spend all the rest of that time finding the best possible combination of words to tell you about it. Over-describing shows a lack of confidence. It’s the author trying to manhandle their vision into your minds eye.

Trust readers to fill in the cracks. I promise you, unless the floor is lava, most people will understand that if character 1 was on one side of the room to get a drink, and then sits down beside character 2 near the entrance, character 1 crossed the room to get there. Just skip it.

Kill Your Darlings

Sometimes you come out with a line or a plot twist or a metaphor that just feels so absolutely wonderful on your brain. About 50% of the time, it doesn’t fit in the story or scene you wrote it for. It’s beautiful! A work of art! But it is, for some reason, on a pedestal in the parking lot of a Costco, and it really ought to be removed.

Do it. Take it out. Then put it in a little subfolder in your computer, where you keep all your best ideas you haven’t figured out how to use yet and wait for the right moment. Trust me, I understand; This blog will likely become home to any number of my own pruned ‘darlings’ as it expands.

But it’s for their own good. If the Venus de Milo was in the hardware store garden center, it would look tacky and self-indulgent, and that’s exactly how your mini-masterpiece looks when it’s left somewhere it just doesn’t belong. Save it until you can do it justice.

Grow a Thick Skin

Most people think that when they’re warned that writers need a thick skin it’s about agent and publisher rejections, reviews, and public commentary. Possibly, you think, you don’t have to to worry about it unless or until you want to publish. You are incorrect.

the fact is, no matter how many times you go through your writing, something will always be wrong. If not wrong, then at least very awkward. You will drive yourself crazy if you can’t learn to just shrug and move on. The most significant problems can be fixed by finding a second set of eyes to help you find alternatives and spot habitual errors, but there will always be a few waiting to be found later.

Nobody likes to make mistakes, but everybody does. Get in the habit of moving on. If nothing else, it’ll make completing rough drafts a lot easier.

Let People Read Your Work-In-Progress

Letting people get a look behind the curtain is beyond the pale for a lot of writers. Like with acting, dancing, and stage magic, if the audience could see the massive apparatus of scaffolding that goes into producing the final product, it would ruin the effect you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. Unlike acting, dancing, and stage magic, writers usually operate on their own, without much outside input.

Pick a few people you trust to be honest and open minded, and show them what you’re working on as it’s developing. Let them read bits and pieces or read to them, and listen to what they have to say. Having another set of sensibilities and insight to draw on will help you build on success and mitigate problems in the early stages, before they’re too baked-in to be easy to extract.

There they are; the most awful pieces of great advice writers need to hear.

Frustrating? Very.

Insulting? Sometimes.

Correct? Nearly always.

I’m afraid we’ll just have to live with them.

Published by

Mal McInnish

Professional public library goblin, hobby-hoarder, and writer, located in Texas, USA.

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