Killing Your Darlings

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.

~ Stephen King

Few writers are as prolific as Stephen King. As of mid-2022, King has written 64 books ranging from a 15,000-word novella to The Stand and It, both in excess of 450,000 words. And yet here he is, advising that writers be ruthless in their self-editing.

This advice – not unique to King – isn’t about cutting for word count. It’s about making the hard decision to excise anything unnecessary or in the way of the story you are trying to tell. That might be a secondary storyline or plot twist, a character, or individual scenes and even sentences.

You’ll recognize these in part because of your overattachment to them. You know something isn’t working, and yet you’re loathe to cut it. That’s understandable. You may have worked really hard on it. Or it all came to you in a transcendent creative rush. It feels like a part of you.

One of my clients cut several chapters from the first section of her memoir after it became clear that they were about events so powerful that they were pulling the story out of shape. Another cut a sub-theme that was beginning to eclipse the book’s main point. Sometimes what needs to come out isn’t substantial, but it’s sentimentally important, like deleting all references to a real person in the memoirist’s life who’s decided they don’t want to be in the book.

Recently, I dropped my son off at the airport, where he caught a flight to Montreal. He’s going to grad school there, but he also plans to make his life in Quebec, a whole country away from me. He is most definitely one of my darlings, and I’m not about to kill him. But letting him go, which is what “killing,” in this case really means, was indisputably the right thing to do. He is part of my story, but he is not the center of my story, nor am I the center of his. Set free as is developmentally appropriate, we both have the opportunity and the room to grow.

So it is that letting the words go that don’t belong in your book is the right thing to do too. They are pulling your book off-center, diluting the story’s focus, and distracting the reader from your point. Don’t throw them away! You may well give them life in another book, or blog post, or article. But they don’t belong in what you’re working on, and you know it. Release them, and watch your writing soar.