As I’ve referenced in previous posts, I’m currently in the process of editing the oldest of my novels, Guises to Keep. At this point in the process, I’m entering the last few chapters, those I haven’t given much attention to in quite some time. As such, in addition to minor edits like improving the narration or touching up grammatical errors that managed to escape my notice before, I’m having to work in major changes made to earlier chapters like one character’s backstory and newer events.
But with these major additions also come major subtractions. Some I have been eager to make, but others have me feeling a little more reluctant to say farewell to.
For writers, a difficult aspect of the process is making these significant cuts. We become attached to parts of our work, be it characters, scenes, particular lines, or something else.
However, these “darlings” as they’re sometimes called, can be more of a hindrance to the overall story than a benefit, leaving us with a hard decision to make: do they stay or do they go?
It’s not uncommon for writers to strive to make these pieces fit, perhaps establishing more of a history between the protagonist and his cousin so the latter doesn’t have to cease to exist or making a particular location the hub for a lot of action just so a certain joke can remain relevant.
However, this isn’t necessarily a solution.
One phrase frequently tossed around in the writing world is, “Murder your darlings.”
This line and its variations are often attributed to a quote from William Faulkner stating, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Others including Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty and Chekov, have also been credited with furthering its popularity.
However, the earliest iteration appears to come from Arthur Quiller-Couch from a 1914 lecture in which he said, “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
Stephen King’s rendition is among my favorites, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Believe me when I say killing your darlings can be a heartbreaking experience. No matter how you put it, it must be done.
Killing, Murdering, or committing any other violent act towards your Darlings refers to the idea that even though you might absolutely love something in your writing, if it doesn’t serve a greater purpose to the plot, it’s usually best to do away with it. It’s especially prevalent in the editing stages where major cuts to the story occur.
As my writing has improved over the years from general practice in newer projects, taking courses in college, and exchanging chapters with a critique partner for review and suggestions for editing, I feel like I’ve gotten better at determining what details are the most necessary and which need to be stored away in a separate document for future, better use.
Working on Guises to Keep as long as I have, there are a number of things I’ve grown partial to because this is the world I have lived in for years, with characters I’ve come to know and love as a second family, and was the start of me discovering my true passion for writing historical fiction. This closeness to every aspect can sometimes make killing my darlings all the more difficult.
As I’ve been considering all of the changes I’m anticipating as a result of changes that I’ve already made, there have been some surprises making their way onto that growing list.
Full disclosure: my novels contain mature themes and sexual content.
Guises to Keep is no exception—at least, at the moment.
Writing sex scenes are a topic I might cover in a future post, but for now I’ll just give a brief glimpse into my thinking towards writing them: there has to be a justifiable reason to include them.
This decision is often based on how it furthers the plot or effects the characters, most often the couple engaged in the act.
In Against His Vows, the first of these scenes is William’s attempt to forget the possibility of having developed romantic feelings for longtime friend Miranda by giving into his fiancee’s intimate suggestions (as well as setting up a future project about Helena). The scene in Bound to the Heart not only furthers Zach and Eve’s relationship but also creates a bit of tension between them–as well as between Zach and his brother; and while Zach and Eve are indisposed, his brother is getting himself into trouble as a result of what their sister has been up to while Zach wasn’t around to prevent it.
With both of these projects, the sex scenes were in the outline and planned ahead.
The one found in Guises to Keep was a more spontaneous decision.
The characters involved were always going to get busy and intimate, but in the first draft I had only ever implied it. The plan was that they were going to be seen making out for a bit, his shirt came off, and that would be that (which is admittedly odd considering he seen in the nude on a few occasions).
When I was starting the first round of edits and came back to that point, I found myself feeling like the scene wasn’t complete so I wrote the sex scene in full.
It’s been a few years since then, and I’m coming up to that chapter another time. But now, I’m wondering if I actually need to have that sex scene in there or if adding it in was a frivolous endeavor.
As I mentioned in my post on the differences between Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction, Guises to Keep has started to feel more like a work of the former. I don’t consider it a historical romance in the way I consider Bound to the Heart or Against His Vows. In some ways, it’s geared towards a different audience with different expectations.
For a lot of romance readers, sex scenes are expected. It’s a genre convention.
Literary Fiction has a reputation of being “Serious Fiction.” Don’t take this as my saying romance novels or any other area of Genre Fiction are not serious fiction or cannot be well-written because that’s certainly not true. The thing that is true, though, is that it pulls in a different and perhaps broader crowd.
Genre Fiction is typically geared towards a particular audience who know what they’re looking for. Works of Genre Fiction typically fit into at least one niche, but quite often more.
Literary Fiction is a different ballgame. It’s not as set into specific brackets and can dip into a number of ranges. As such, its readership is typically more variated in taste, age, and overall interest.
As a writer, you want to surprise your readers and do the unexpected. You don’t want the story to be predictable. But at the same time, you don’t want any unwelcome suprises that may be too offputting. For some, this might be in-depth descriptions of gore at a crime scene or depictions or a violent crime being committed. In other instances, this might be sex.
I don’t mean to imply that sex cannot or should be present in works of Literary Fiction or should be relegated only to specific corners of Genre Fiction, but it does require a different handling of sorts.
In all honesty, I’ve not made up my mind yet about what I’ll be doing with the sex scene in Guises to Keep. As much as I want to keep it, my gut is telling me it needs to be removed. It’s something I’ll be thinking about as I get closer to that part of the story. Overall, it doesn’t effect the story in the sense that those seen in my other projects do. It’s important in terms of where the characters’ relationship is at in that moment in time and demonstrating their taking that next step, and there are other factors that are affecting them individually such as his carefulness about being intimate with any woman as a result of past experiences and committing to her, and her experiencing the risk-taking stage of grieving a deceased loved one while reaffirming her feelings for him.
There is a lot to unpack in that moment, but I’m not sure if the reader needs to bear witness to it (or if the reader would want to bear witness to it). I’ve had to make quite a few tough calls as I’ve gone through this draft, but this strangely feels like the hardest one yet.
“Murder your darlings” is a renowned phrase for a reason: it’s solid advice. A lot of the time, writers can rely on instinct. That’s the way we navigate our craft. Any reservations we might have are indications that something isn’t right with the story we are telling. If something doesn’t feel like it belongs, then maybe it doesn’t.
When all else fails, remember that the Delete key is your best friend.
To learn more about my editing process, check out this post where I all break it down.