57. Kill your darlings

Is any advice harder? To delete your most treasured and self-indulgent passages for the betterment of your manuscript. I’ve been mutilating, if not killing, one of my darlings, and I can tell you, the deed was done with a heavy heart.

The passage in question is from my book, The Golden Illusion. This is a mystery story with a difference, where the detective is a hapless conjurer who believes he’s on the track of an ancient Egyptian illusion. I’ve been summoning up courage for months for the revision. I love the words, naturally. But reader after reader has said the scene drags and slows the story down (there was one fan, but only one of ten). Only when I advised another writer to delete a cherished passage, a product of diligent research, from her book did I know I had to do the same.

Research is my Achilles heel. I guess that’s because I was once an academic. You put your back into excavating some fascinating truth, you wash it clean, and reassemble the pieces. How could you not love it? How could everyone else not be entranced by it?

In the scene, the main character, Ruairi McNair, gives a lecture to psychology students about how suggestibility works, and unmasks the tricks of fake mediums. I laid everything out, just as I’d researched the topic. Dammit, I’d put a lot of work in. I saw myself giving that lecture.

And that, of course, is the trouble – it’s self-indulgent. One reader told me “you’re giving a lecture, not telling a story”. The scene prepares the ground for another, towards the end of the book, where he unmasks a psychic fraudster. But there was just too much stuff. I’ve slashed 500 words from the passage. Even this may not be enough, but I had no stomach for more carnage at the time.

By the way, I did some research for this post. I wondered who had first offered the “kill your darlings” advice. I had always vaguely believed it was Stephen King. And he did say it. But so did many others before him. The earliest known source seems to have been Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1914 lecture, “On Style.”

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.’

Maybe I should delete the last paragraph before I post this.

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