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  • Jeff Kerr

Killing My Darling

Updated: Oct 2, 2022


Every writer is familiar with the phrase “kill your darlings.” Every good writer has done it. There’s even a 2013 film by that name starring Daniel Radcliff, Dane DeHaan, and Michael C. Hall. I haven’t seen it, but I do know the plot involves literary heavyweights Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs coming together to spawn the “beat generation.” From that movement came the word “beatnik,” which in turn begat Dobie Gillis, which in turn led to Bob Denver becoming Gilligan of island fame.


Many attribute the term to William Faulkner. Those people are wrong. He may have said or written it at some point in his life, but an Englishman named Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch beat him to the punch in the 1916 book On the Art of Writing with this passage:


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.


Sir Quiller-Couch wasn’t one to give advice and not follow it himself. He hit the delete button on his own name by publishing under the pseudonym Q. That’s as lean as it gets. Later, of course, he went on to play the extra-dimensional being that torments Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation.


To emphasize Q’s point, Stephen King once wrote “…kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings, preferably with a scary gutter clown.” Okay, I made up the part about the clown, but I’ll bet that’s what he was thinking.


Why am I blathering on about this overworked phrase? Because I just had to kill one of my own darlings. Not a little one either, like one of those pesky adverbs that somehow sneak into a manuscript. No, this was a big one, several hundred words of beautiful prose that ultimately had no place in the book.


How did this happen? I’m working with an editor on my current project. He expressed the opinion that moving one plot twist forward in the narrative would quicken the pace of the story. He was right. Unfortunately, that rendered my several hundred word “piece of exceptionally fine writing” irrelevant. It had to go.


So, I killed it. I highlighted the entire passage, took a deep breath, and hit the enter key. Poof, it disappeared. It lives on in my hard drive, nestled in earlier versions of the manuscript that will never see the light of day. How do I feel? Oddly, I feel better. I know that, thanks to my editor, the book is improved. And that is the goal, is it not? Even if I must on occasion become the scary clown.


Photo by Julien L. on Unsplash


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