Murdering My Darlings, and Other Metaphors

Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. -Colette, author (28 Jan 1873-1954)

I subscribe to A.Word.A.Day, which, as the name suggests, emails me an interesting word every day. I know a lot of these already; many more are completely unusable; a few have potential and I put them away for future use.

It also comes with a Thought For The Day. The above was one of them.

I’m rather flattered. I want to say, ‘no, no, that’s the easy part’. Or, ‘I’m not an author, I’m just a proof-reader’. You see, proof-reading has always been the easy part, for me. Or, rather, since I started bothering to do it to my own work, it’s been the easy part. I have been proof-reading since I was in my early teens. I’ve always had a good eye for spelling and grammar; I know without having to delve into the rules how a word should look and where a comma wants to be. I’m as happy with a red pen in my hand as with a black one, and crossing through a word of my own hurts no more than crossing through a word of someone else’s. ‘Purple and derivative – cut!’ is no different from ‘Check your deadline here – you say 5pm on p. 17!’

Writing is the hard part. Oh, ‘everything that comes into my head’ is all very well, but it tends to leave me with an archipelago of unrelated scenes, snippets of description, brief exchanges of dialogue. What comes next is raising the ocean floor to make two islands into one, building bridges and tunnels to join two or three others into a coherent route, adding piers so that one can see a little bit further.

And then I simply go through and take out everything that doesn’t need to be there. Blow up a bridge or two. Bypass one of the original islands. ‘Simply’, I say. It’s a long, tedious, process – since I started writing ‘Speak Its Name’ I must have deleted at least as much as there is in the current almost-finished file – but it doesn’t hurt. ‘Murder your darlings’, they say. It doesn’t feel like murdering to me. It’s more (if we’re going to mix our metaphors) as if I’ve been building a cathedral, and I’ve had to do masonry and woodwork and everything from scratch, and until I’m quite a long way through the process I can’t see what’s scaffolding and what’s a flying buttress. I put in what needs to be there at the beginning, but when I approach the end I find that some of it doesn’t need to be there any more.

I suppose I don’t really murder my darlings. I take them out of class and put them to bed. Sometimes they reappear, adapted for a different character’s point of view or a flashback to somebody’s past. Sometimes they slumber in ‘might come in useful’ for ever. I don’t much mind either way. Resurrecting a paragraph or two isn’t so much like saving a life as picking a useful plank out of the skip, finding that it can fill a hole after all.

An author? How I’d love to accept Colette’s title. I can’t help feeling though, that I don’t really, or really don’t, deserve it; that it ought to be harder than that. Perhaps everything feels not-quite-hard-enough when you’ve already done it, when you know you can.

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