Save my little darlings!

An oft-heard recommendation for writers-in-training is some variation of the macabre maxim, “you must kill all your little darlings.” It’s not a mandate for infanticide but rather advice to remove from your work those passages whose purpose is more to build your ego or impress others than to drive your plot or build your characters.

This dictum, which has been attributed to everyone from Faulkner to Stephen King*, is hard to obey. First of all, we love our clever turns of phrase and our precious metaphors. Writers tend to be an egocentric bunch (actually, nearly all human beings fit that bill) who want others to appreciate their genius (or mediocrity, as the case may be). Otherwise, why try to publish our work instead of just scribbling it out and reading it to ourselves?

I have a worse problem. I don’t even want to hurt my darlings.

In this instance I’m talking not about my prose but my characters. They’re like my children or my friends. How could I stand to let them suffer needlessly? Sure, a character has to go through crises and conflicts or they end up in a totally tedious tome. (Now that’s a little darling if ever I wrote one!) No one wants to read:

They started out happy.
A bunch of happy things happened.
They lived happily ever after.

Hopefully, no one wants to write it either. It’s OK for my darlings to go through the fire – we all must – but I need to redeem their trials so the journey is worthwhile.

This afflicts my reading as well as my writing. I’m one of those people who gets ridiculously wrapped up in the characters in a story. (To read more about my obsession, check out this post.) I can’t stand it when characters I’ve grown to care about don’t wind up in some positive state by the end of the tale. Do whatever you want with the jerks in the story, but leave my buds alone.

I prescribe to the Golden Rule of Writing: “Do unto your characters as you would have done unto you.”

Does that make for a boring book/movie/play? By no means. There are lots of (most, I’d judge) stories that have what some would call a happy ending. For some reason, though, it limits the critical reception since critics fawn all over Humpty-Dumpty-esque characters that self-destruct never to be put together again.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Austen, Dickens, and Tolkien (to name just a few) pulled it off somehow. There are worse examples to follow.


*Evidence indicates it was actually coined by a¬†Cambridge lecturer named Arthur Quiller-Couch back in the 1910’s.

Read or write… or write?

Inspired by a discussion with a fellow writer earlier today, I’m trying to figure out how to do it all.

I’m told that great writers read a lot. Writers also have to write a lot. Whether this is true is, of course, a matter of conjecture.

What isn’t conjecture is that there are only so many hours in a day – 24, by most reckoning – as well as days in a lifetime. In other words, there are boundaries. If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that you can’t do everything. Believe me, I’ve tried. Now you don’t have to because I’ve told you and I wouldn’t lie.

Plus, I’m writing this blog.

On top of all that reading and writing (thankfully no ‘rithmetic), there’s life. Life takes up all my time. Even weekends. As one of my heroes wrote, we all have dots we’re committed to connect: pay bills, keep in touch with friends and family, exercise, go to the bathroom, feed ourselves, return calls, clean the house, buy Stuff, fix Stuff, store Stuff, throw away Stuff, pay taxes, fill the gas tank, balance the checkbook. You get it. Somewhere in there we need to pull back and recharge, too.

That list looks really important when it’s staring me down. Like most people, I generally submit to the Tyranny of the Urgent. Everything else – writing included – gets pushed down until it decomposes into compost, stinky and filthy but suitable for planting seeds, one would hope.

So when do I get the real Writing done?

Now.