Your Darlings’ First Death

So, I wrote this early last month, and I’ve been sitting on it since then.

I think it’s ready now. 

1. Kill Your Darlings

We’re still not sure who said it first, but it’s a common saying among writerly folks: kill your darlings.

People usually interpret it like this: take out all the stuff in your writing that doesn’t work, even if you love it to pieces. Beloved characters, out-of-place jokes, and wonderfully fluffy scenes have all fallen to the cutting floor under this banner. It is good advice.

But you can apply it in another way. Sometimes, our darlings die earlier than the editing stage. We don’t talk as much about the first death, but it’s just as important.

2. Ann Patchett nailed it.

201401-omag-read-9-284xfallOnly a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

–Ann Patchett

(You can also find this quote in her book, which I very much enjoyed.)

3. Break Your Book.

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot, especially as I approach the final chapters of The Ever Afters 4. I’m struggling with them.

Usually, when I get this close to the ending of a book, something sparks inside and ignites a typing frenzy. I usually can’t wait to fly through the scenes. This time, I just feel wistful, not excited. Only stubborn determination powers me through a scene, and Ann Patchett phrased the reason perfectly.

I’m writing a tough scene this week. The idea for it came to me in 2009, soon after I began developing the series. In the four and a half years since then, the scene in my head gained detail. Emotions snowballed around it. Bits of Books 2 and 3 have set it up. It was always coming, this scene, and it was going to be epic and heartrending and moving beyond measure.

Now, I’m writing it down, and pretty much every sentence makes me cringe. In my head, it’s so intense that I hear a very dramatic singing every time I think about it (that might be my EAS#4 playlist, though). On the page, it’s only these ugly little paragraphs–full of substandard dialogue, clumsy descriptions, and confusing plotting.

In other words, I’m breaking a beloved scene. I keep ruining the moments in this series that I’ve been looking forward for most of my adult life. A terrible suspicion strikes me every time I look at what I’ve done:  that I don’t have enough skill to write the book that’s living in my head.

4. Work Past the Doubt.

I wasn’t going to write about this feeling; I was going to just grit my teeth and power through it (see the bit about stubborn determination above).

What changed my mind is this: I’ve heard from tons of aspiring writers who say the same thing: what’s in my brain doesn’t match what ends up on the page. These readers are convinced that this means they’re not very good at writing.

But here’s the thing. ALL writers feel like the prose on the page doesn’t measure up with the epicness in our heads. Ann Patchett does. I do. This guy does too (btw, if you haven’t watched this video, YOU SHOULD).

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

Doubt like this is a badge of honor. It means that you care about what you’re writing. It means you’re motivated to work on it until you make it better.

5. Break in order to Mend.

I’m not actually ruining my book. I recognize this in my saner moments, even if it’s only in a distant logical way that doesn’t have anything to do with how I feel.

But by writing it down, I am breaking it. It might not be a bad thing.

I believe that humans can be stronger after breaking open. I believe this, because something has to mend the fissure along the broken pieces. Something has to pour out of the person or out of the universe to fill in the scar. It could be something as small and mundane as your own stubborn determination or it could be something as grand as restored faith in the goodness of people. Whatever it is, a scar can make a broken thing more than what it was before it was broken.

That’s true for anything that has the potential to grow. It’s true for manuscripts. Maybe even the manuscript of the series you’ve been writing for five years.

Yes, I’m breaking these beautiful scenes into pieces. Yes, I probably don’t have the skill I need to write the book in my brain, but I WILL have that skill after this draft is finished. I’ll develop it while I’m revising. Through a lot of work and many drafts, I’ll take all the broken pieces, and something unexpected will rise up out of them to bind the rough edges together. It won’t be the beautiful scene I imagined. It will be something better–something I never could have envisioned while I was drafting. What grows over the scars of the scenes I’ve broken does something I could never do on my own–it makes the book more than the sum of its parts.

Of Giants and Ice, Of Witches and Wind, and Of Sorcery and Snow all grew through the exact same journey. That’s how I know.

I just need to have the courage to keep breaking beautiful scenes into lackluster words. I have to keep reminding myself: sometimes, you have to let your darlings die their first death, so something better can grow in their broken places.

Disclaimer: This blog post was brought to you as the author’s pep talk to HERSELF. She has to go back to writing and revising those pesky scenes now. (Hopefully, this way, she’ll be more cheerful about it. (And hopefully, she’ll never again talk about herself in the third person.))

22 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Rose May 30, 2014
    • Shelby June 15, 2014
  2. Brenda May 30, 2014
    • Shelby June 15, 2014
  3. Emily May 31, 2014
    • Shelby June 15, 2014
  4. wind chimes May 31, 2014
    • Shelby June 15, 2014
  5. sunshine June 1, 2014
    • Shelby June 15, 2014
  6. Rain June 3, 2014
    • Rain June 10, 2014
      • Shelby June 15, 2014
  7. Abby Hall June 4, 2014
    • Shelby June 15, 2014
  8. Emily June 23, 2014
    • Shelby January 12, 2015
  9. Katie W. August 15, 2014
    • Shelby January 12, 2015
      • Katie W. February 16, 2015
  10. Katie W. August 15, 2014
    • Shelby January 12, 2015