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Lucius
Posted on Friday, September 16, 2005 - 02:45 pm:   

On another topic there's this thread that makes constant and annoying reference to killing your darlings, ie, getting rid of those eloquent expressions that stand out from one's prose. Elmore Leonard or someone recommeds this tactic. It's one of the most parroted and ill-considered and wrongly used cliches picked up on by novice writers. Preaching this slogan leads to a sameness of style and legislates against the rich traditions of American literature. Eloquence is often misapprehended by the uninformed as floweriness, where in fact it reflects a precision in evoking. among other qualities, emotional nuance. If you seek to achieve this, if you strive for a richly complex surface, I'd advise a novice writer to cultivate your darlings, nourish your idiosyncracies, and weed out your cullls. If, on the other hand you wish to take a minimalist approach, by all means, killl your darlings. You'll risk sounding like everyone else, but it's the safe way to go.
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MarcL
Posted on Friday, September 16, 2005 - 05:49 pm:   

According to this, it was Faulkner. Sam Johnson offered similar advice. It's as old, in other words, as the hills. Funny thing is, neither of those guys followed it. I think they were just trying to thin out the competition.

http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1282093
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AliceB
Posted on Friday, September 16, 2005 - 06:18 pm:   

Lucius, amen. I've always thought good writing is like good music: the whole has to sound right. A unique voice is priceless--full or sparse. Thanks for laying it out.

Best,
Alice
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Lucius
Posted on Friday, September 16, 2005 - 06:43 pm:   

Anna, thank you for not allowing me to twist slowly in the wind. :-)
Marc, whoever said it first (Caligula?), I'm sure there had to be some hidden agenda, because it's so obviously lousy advice, unless qualified and annotated.
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Rich Patterson
Posted on Friday, September 16, 2005 - 09:08 pm:   

Lousy advice? It's the same advice Stephen King gives on ON WRITING.:-)
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Lucius
Posted on Friday, September 16, 2005 - 09:37 pm:   

Well, there you are! You can be the new Stephen King or the new Avram Davidson.... :-)
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MarcL
Posted on Friday, September 16, 2005 - 10:02 pm:   

We used to say in the Freestyle manifesto, "Write like yourself, only moreso."
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Lucius
Posted on Friday, September 16, 2005 - 10:36 pm:   

Freestyle?? Well, whatever it was, you were right.....
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Brendan
Posted on Friday, September 16, 2005 - 10:52 pm:   

Well, the difference between guys like Faulkner and Joyce (who also had an idea about getting rid of purple prose) is that back then writing in general was much richer. So, if they trimmed back a little on texture, they still ended up with very rich prose. Today however, most people write with such a limited vocabulary etc. that their is often precious little to kill without committing creative suicide.
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Carole C
Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2005 - 01:04 am:   

Thanks, Lucius for this very sound advice (I NEVER kill my darlings), as this is something I've been confused about for ages. I keep finding myself trying to ADD darlings or trying to resuscitate the darlings lying dead on the page.

It's further confusing as bad darlings *do* tend to make you want to skip them, also some literary stories (or books) seem to be just one long darling, which was either stillborn or has become a member of the living dead, and you find yourself just wanting to kick it.

Its a real problem.
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Lucius
Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2005 - 05:38 am:   

Yeah, Carole...bad writing is a different question, one we all have to deal with. Trimming shears are a necessary tool, but as Brendan points out, one must have something to trim.

Point taken, Brendan, But the scenario you sketch is at least partially due to the kill-darlings prose strategy. I just want to encourage people to take their daily dose of modifiers and correct this imbalance. I'd like to see more people give consideration to rhythm, textture, and so forth in their work as it applies to the Back Mountain dictum--form is an extension of content. Then this knee-jerk reflex toward minimalism might go away.
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MarcL
Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2005 - 11:43 am:   

Notice also that while these folks are all too ready to urge others to "kill your darlings," they never invite anyone to come over and kill theirs.
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Lucius
Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2005 - 11:57 am:   

You obviously never've been to a party at.....I can't pull the trigger. I've made enough enemies this week.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2005 - 07:15 pm:   

To me "kill your darlings" always seemed to mean don't fall so in love with your words that you screw up the story.
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Lucius
Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2005 - 07:47 pm:   

That;s not how most young writers take it...
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2005 - 08:11 pm:   

I've only heard it in relation to Clarion students so never knew where it came from. Here is the definition on the site MarcL cites:

"This does not mean that you should take a chainsaw to your loved ones, it means that you, in your writing, should cut to the chase and have the courage to get rid of the elements that you love so much yourself, but that don't really add anything to the whole - or, even worse, actually weaken it. Typical "darlings" would be clever turns of phrase, insignificant trivia, funny anecdotes that don't really relate to the question at hand etcetera."

I agree with it. It does not mean that writing shouldn't have a voice or use language beautifully.
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Lucius
Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2005 - 08:30 pm:   

I agree with that, but that's not how it's taken by most....and I'm not sure I agree with saying it even that way, because it engenders uninformed usage.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2005 - 08:44 pm:   

That's probably why if/when the expression is used by teachers they should be very careful explaining what they mean. It should be part of the self-editing process every author needs to go through before sending their work out into the world.

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Lucius
Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2005 - 08:50 pm:   

Yup...
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ben peek
Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2005 - 08:55 pm:   

i've taught classes where students come in with the leonard quote version of this already. i don't know where they've picked it up from. it's a bit frightening, really, like an urban myth about marilyn manson being the nerdy kid from the wonder years, and which everyone believes. not as funny to believe, though.
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Lucius
Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2005 - 09:59 pm:   

It seems its kind of a validation that they don't have to be unique, that they can just be generic...which, of course, is true, but so what?
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Saturday, September 17, 2005 - 10:07 pm:   

I don't think that's what it means at all, Lucius.
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ben peek
Posted on Sunday, September 18, 2005 - 05:24 am:   

i don't think most students take it like that. maybe they do, but i've always got the feel that the advice feed into the desperation to get published, to get out there, and that they're looking for some thing that will help with that. 'kill your darlings' is easy to latch onto, really, because it can be read as simply as cut it back. doing that might even seem like a quicker road to publication than 'nurture, grow, keep trying and write another thing'.
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PM
Posted on Sunday, September 18, 2005 - 07:32 am:   

I can't pull the trigger. I've made enough enemies this week. --- Lucius

C'mon accept the enemy of "writers", enemy of "man" label...it's a bit late in the game to do otherwise:-) There's your t-shirt for the entrepreneurs...

If the goal is to be published then isn't it at least as important to gain an understanding of what editors are buying?

If editors are buying then...

If one is writing for the sake of writing then it only matters inasmuch as one is seeking input from others.
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JV
Posted on Sunday, September 18, 2005 - 08:22 am:   

That quote about kill your darlings is dangerous. Almost every writer would have a different opinion on which darlings to kill. This is very much something every writer must decide for themselves. And if an instructor tells it to a student in a general way, the student must pin the instructor down on what precisely he or she means with regard to their specific writing. Otherwise, it's a meaningless and dangerous comment.

JeffV
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Lucius
Posted on Sunday, September 18, 2005 - 08:41 am:   

Jeff and Ben said what I was trying to get at in my post-football stupor. Thanks.

And PM, editors don't buy according to style, they buy good stories in whatever form.
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PM
Posted on Sunday, September 18, 2005 - 05:07 pm:   

Don't see how one can separate style from form and/or a story.

Perhaps I should expand a bit more and then my comment will seem more reasonable. Inasmuch as it's possible to lump editors into a group - I'm suggesting that writers without a reputation would do better by engaging in discussion with an editor or others who were familiar with the editor to gain perspective.

Editors become the final arbiters of what's acceptable...getting published is about giving them what they want in the manner that they want it:-)

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Lucius
Posted on Sunday, September 18, 2005 - 05:29 pm:   

If you try and tailor your work for a market, you turn yourself into a hack. Every editor I've ever worked with has bought a wide range of styles. For new writers to engage in a discussion with an editor about what they want....Well, any editor is going to say, I want good stories. Maybe they'll say I want good scifi stories or good fantasy stories. But the word "good" will be in there. They're not going to say something like, I want stories in the manner or Kelly LInc, or in the manner of Henrich Schmeilhauser. They're not gonna say I want good minimalist stories or good stories told in a formal, rather roccoco voice. If you want to know what an editor's buying, look at the mag or website.
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Adam-Troy
Posted on Sunday, September 18, 2005 - 07:34 pm:   

Like any rule, it can be taken overboard. I've never taken it to mean "Avoid Style," but rather, "Don't Hold on to Superfluous Cleverness, if it Doesn't Advance The Work." You can have any amount of aimless description that reads prettily but doesn't do anything.
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Lisa Goldstein
Posted on Sunday, September 18, 2005 - 08:22 pm:   

What I've heard that's kind of related to this is that a writer needs a good bullshit detector. (Oddly, I heard this from a writer who lost his long ago, but that's another story.) You need to be able to step back and look at your deathless prose, and then decide whether it's as brilliant as you first thought or whether, on second thought, it's really a bunch of pretentious tripe. The problem is that this is a very hard thing to learn, and even if you can do it regularly you'll still (most people will) slip up on occasion and the pretentious tripe will come through. But this kind of thing is impossible to teach -- it only comes from experience -- so it's easier for teachers of writing to just say "Kill your darlings."
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Dave G.
Posted on Monday, September 19, 2005 - 06:55 am:   

Just as an aside, to show how this is interpreted by some, I was showing a short story of mine to a friend who is an award-nominated fiction writer and Lish disciple, and when I explained to her that she was just getting a part I really liked, she told me, "the parts you like, those are the ones you need to get rid of." That puzzled me a bit. Just goes to show that the "KYD" principle can be interpreted quite liberally, beyond what I think was the original intention.
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Lucius
Posted on Monday, September 19, 2005 - 07:15 am:   

That was my point. Misinterpretation is rife.
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MarcL
Posted on Monday, September 19, 2005 - 07:45 am:   

It's too bad Gordon Lish wasn't her darling.
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Lucius
Posted on Monday, September 19, 2005 - 08:01 am:   

Good point, Marc.
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al duncan
Posted on Monday, September 19, 2005 - 11:42 am:   

I dunno. Maybe it is applied and interpreted in a vague sense, and it is a cliche, no doubt of that, but I think there's a kernel of something in there of value. I mean, the idea that "the parts you like, those are the ones you need to get rid of" is just absurd. Assuming you have the critical nous to evaluate your own work, you're meant to use that insight to weed out the good stuff and replace it with kack? WTF?!?! That's clearly mental.

However...

I think the word "darlings" makes this not so much about the *eloquent* (which, I agree, gets confused for flowery) as it's about the *precious* -- i.e. unconditionally loved, mollycoddled, ickle munchkins of prose that are ultimately weak and ineffectual and that you find yourself defending with a sort of parental indulgence. Like... little Johnny may be flunking his grades but that's his teachers's fault. Little Johnny may have been dropped from the Little League team, but that's because the coach has it in for him. Little Johnny may whine if you ask him to do a wee bit of hard work, but that's his artistic temperament. He doesn't mix well with the other kids? It's because he's sensitive. What's that about the neigbour's cat? Not my Little Johnny!

I guess what I'm trying to say is that for me this is about *blind* love, where you end up bending over backwards making excuses for writing that's just plain weak.

There's a similar cliche / urban legend in painting, about this or that famous painter getting stuck with a work until eventually they realised the problem and painted out the *best* bit. Could be total bollocks, but I think it can happen. I cut a whole story thread out of INK because as much as I liked the idea and the repartee of the characters and a few particularly point-making nuggets of prose that gave me an "Ooh! Ooh! That nails it! That's what I'm trying to say!" feeling, it just didn't work for the book. Hell, about fifteen years back I took everything I'd ever written out and burned it one night because it was just a big pile of characters and backgrounds and ideas that I loved so much I couldn't fucking write a single story without trying to put every single character, background and idea into it.

What it comes down to, I'd say, is that this is really just a piece of shorthand advising the novice writer not to get too attached to this or that detail of plot, character, style or whatever, *if* it jars with the story and for the benefit of the story really needs to get cut out. I think it's applicable (maybe *only* applicable) if yer bogged down in a story, stalled with no idea where to go. Then I think you have to be *willing* to slice away the superfluous elements that are confusing things. You have to be ruthless about what serves the story and what doesn't. And my guess is it's a common fault amongst novices that they're reluctant to make those hard calls.

But if it's taken as a superficial truism about style in particular -- that Less Is Better -- then, yeah, that's bullshit. Then it's just a blind for the same facile view whereby ambitious = pretentious, complex = purple, and so on.
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Lucius
Posted on Monday, September 19, 2005 - 11:56 am:   

That's what it's taken for by novices about--Oh, I'd say--95 % of the time. That's going by my Clarion and other workshop classes. And I'd further say that I've known more than a few instructors to teach it that way, proving the perniciousness of the slogan.

Cutting storylines, characters, massive chunks of whatever, is pretty much an advanced take of the slogan. Do it frequently my own self.
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PM
Posted on Monday, September 19, 2005 - 06:04 pm:   

Certainly the editor will decide to what extent they're willing to discuss what they're looking to purchase.

If one is examining what's already been printed by the publication and then uses that as a guideline to tailor one's writing (assuming that one has the ability to even do so) then it's quite possible that one is already being influenced by someone else's style.

It maybe that one's story of psionic penguins just isn't going to have the commercial opportunity of something in the vein of Harry Potter.

I'm not suggesting that this is praiseworthy behavior.

Certainly if one has been working with an editor over time one gains a greater understanding of their expectations.

But if one were unfamiliar with that editor then who knows...if one is simply following a formula and chopping accordingly then one is only guessing that what was chopped would be unacceptable.

Hack, hack...
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Lucius
Posted on Monday, September 19, 2005 - 06:48 pm:   

Well, that's certainly one way of dissecting the problem, albeit an irrelevant one.

Questions such as "Am I being influenced stylistically by reading a website or magazine" are far afield from the issue at hand, which has to do with killing darlings. If you want to know what an editor's buying, it's common sense to look at what they edit. No one suggested tailoring one's writing. There's no need. Most editors within and without the genre buy a wide range of styles......

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PM
Posted on Monday, September 19, 2005 - 07:30 pm:   

Lucius, I hope you're enjoying this as I plunge into this yet again:-) As to your original post I agree much more than disagree and yes I'm going off in a different but not entirely unrelated direction. (Though in some sense one might suggest that in part I haven't killed my darlings...)

Who's going to kill their darlings? Could be the writer, could be the editor, could be both.

If the writer kills them before submission then the editor never has an opportunity to do so. Perhaps the editor would have agreed with the cuts. Perhaps not.

The other extreme is that the writer leaves them in and overwhelms the editor.

And then returning to the writer's familiarity with the editor...perhaps the editor isn't altogether against at least some darlings and the writer leaves them in.

This of course assumes that the writer is even able to recognize them and likely being a novice is not always being readily aware...
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MarcL
Posted on Monday, September 19, 2005 - 11:54 pm:   

I think those smiley faces are darling. Let's kill them.
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JV
Posted on Tuesday, September 20, 2005 - 12:13 am:   

I agree. Kill them all! I also think, PM, you need to *kill the darlings* in your post! Everything after "Lucius," must go!

And now I run off to Australia. Carry on.

JeffV
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Lucius
Posted on Tuesday, September 20, 2005 - 03:34 am:   

Have a blast In Austrailia, Jeff....
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Lucius
Posted on Tuesday, September 20, 2005 - 03:44 am:   

I don't know what to tell you, PM. It seems you're being deliberately obtuse...

This thread began as a cautionary note to novice writers not to follow the kill darlings advice blindly, and you're taking it....Well, I don't know where you're taking it, but good luck.
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PM
Posted on Tuesday, September 20, 2005 - 05:57 pm:   

Evidently I've unintentionally thrown at least some folk far afield of my original intent...so I'll abandon the explantion(s). No harm intended.

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