by Stephanie Morrill
Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
Among the most confusing writing advice I've ever received is one I hear repeated all the time: Kill your darlings.
Who this phrase originates with is something of a debate, but it's become one of those bits of advice writers throw around. I used to ignore it because it confused me. My "darlings" were often the best parts of my novel—exchanges of dialogue that I thought were particularly clever, characters who felt like real people to me. The idea that somehow removing those things would improve my story seemed preposterous.
The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet.
The first time I wrote that book, Ellie wasn't a writer. Considering this the whole premise of the final product is that Ellie is a teen writer, that's a very strange thing to think about. Here's the premise:
When ousted by her lifelong friends, teen writer Ellie Sweet takes to story writing as self-therapy. She casts herself as Lady Gabrielle, a favorite in the medieval Italian court, her ex-friends as her catty rivals, and makes a pesky rake of the boy who thinks he’s too good for her in real life. But when Ellie achieves the impossible and her “coping mechanism” becomes a published novel, she faces the consequences of using her pen as her sword.
In the original draft—the one where Ellie wasn't a writer—the book ended with Ellie's father being transferred halfway across the country and she moved without telling anyone. I loved this ending.
When I rewrote the book with Ellie being a writer, the climax of the story instead had to do with the book Ellie had written. I wove those plot points in with the plot line of the Sweet family relocating...and this left me with a really big mess.
I knew the ending was a mess, but I didn't know why. I printed out the last quarter of the book so I could see what the ending would look like if I rearranged some scenes, and finally I put my finger on the problem: My book had two conclusions. They were competing with each other and as a result, the story was losing.
I had to cut one. And I saw very clearly that Ellie-the-teen-writer didn't need to pack up and move to Kansas like the original Ellie had needed to.
But I loved that ending! I especially loved some of the scenes I had written for book two, The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet. Ellie met some great people in Kansas. I wanted her to meet those people!
For the first time, I understood the purpose behind killing my darlings. Loving a bit of writing or an aspect of your story isn't by itself a sufficient reason to keep it. If it's not serving the story, it needs to go.
I like how Stephen King puts this idea in his classic writing book, On Writing. In a discussion about having written a description that's good but goes on for too long, Stephen King says:
"In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring,' the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling ... certainly I couldn't keep [the description] on the grounds that it's good; it should be good, if I'm being paid to do it. What I'm not being paid to do is be self-indulgent."I wanted to keep my original ending to The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet because it mirrored something that had happened in my childhood and it had been fun to write and think about. And, frankly, because I had already written it plus 25,000 words of book two, and I hated having to pitch all of that.
But those are lousy, self-indulgent reasons.
So I killed my darlings, and Ellie stayed in California. Because of that she wound up learning lessons she never would have if I'd allowed her such an easy escape, and I'm proud of the way the book turned out.
Have you come upon a time in writing when you've had to let go of something—a character, a plot point, a bit of description—that you loved but that didn't serve the story?
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