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The Roadkill of Writing

Two things in particular have reminded me about the Cape Code writing workshop this week: pictures in my email from fellow participants, and putting my newly honed editing skills to work on a peer-editing project. These, in turn, reminded me of some of the advice we received over the course of that week.

  • There are two ways to write: shooting ducks or hunting deer. (Tom Jehn) In the first method, the writer writes down all ideas as they come to her, and edits them together into collective coherence later. In the second, the narrative sequence takes priority, and the writer writes in whatever order is sequential to the narrative.

  • "Kill your darlings." (Tom Regan) If you are really, really pleased (chuffed, even) with a particular turn of phrase or analogy in your writing and you leave it intact in your editing, then odds are good that the phrase needs to go entirely, that it's overwritten, and your writing will be better off without it.

Cutting paragraphs, eliminating prolixity, and savage reviews: writing is such a violent activity.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 16th, 2004 03:34 pm (UTC)
There are two ways to write: shooting ducks or hunting deer.

To which I must perforce add "shooting oneself"--but only in fun, naturally. ::coughs:: ::grins::

Thanks for "kill your darlings"--bang on, that. Just call me Lady Macbeth ;-D ...
Aug. 17th, 2004 07:08 am (UTC)
Continuing the deer analogy, my supervisor referred to the process of reducing a draft to submission length as a "cull". Oft came the sound of terrified bleating as my words huddled behind each other, trying to dodge the DELETE bullets from my text editor...
In a way, the lines you use in writing are "lines spent", not "lines achieved". As long as you have said what you need to say, in a clear manner, you have no need to write more. So the more you kill, the better. In theory...
Aug. 17th, 2004 10:15 am (UTC)
I like what I call the kindergarten approach. "Today I am going to tell you a story about the Canterbury Tales. The Canterbury Tales were written in England by Chaucer a long time ago, and ..." ;)
Aug. 16th, 2004 06:05 pm (UTC)
killing the darlings
i have of late discussed with friends that writing is often so tied in with ego that the two need to be separated with force. I think the much used "kill the darlings" stems from the problem of our egos interfering with the story. It just sounds catchier and is easier to deal with than the fact that often times we hang onto ideas and concepts that interfere with the story itself.

What is best for the story? What is the best possible means of achieving our goal in the stories we are telling? As i have recently dumped 22,000 words I thought about this "killing the darlings" phrase. Eventually i have come to the conclusion that personally I can kill everything i have written - sacrifice it all on the altar of the story. There might be some good material in the 22,000 words - there certainly the core of it that is solid - but the words need to be altered. And as long as i cling to those "turns of phrases" or particular ideas, then i am not looking at what the story needs. I need to trust that i can find another 22,000 words - and follow it with 100,000 more, in order to tell the best story i can given my own abilities.

when i trust myself in the writitng process I can cut 400 words, snip scenes and sentences, without thought. i do back up my work, but i find my second/third/fifth revisions are often much more coherent.

there are always more words and scenes to write.

and thus ends my $0.02 comment :D
Aug. 16th, 2004 06:32 pm (UTC)
Re: killing the darlings
Hmm... I think I'd be willing to pay at least 5 cents for that reply.

You have a good point, that this phrase simplifies what good writing should require unduly. A catchy turn of phrase or even a clichéd sentence can serve the greater good of a story quite well if used appropriately. The problem lies in saving a really clever creation despite what it's doing to story flow. I like the way you worded it - separating egos from the story. Or... to be unduly clever and somewhat incorrect... "There's no 'I' in the word 'story'."

Your discarding of words is a good example. I'm rewriting the chapter drafts from last year, but doing it from scratch - on the other hand, I know what I wrote last year doesn't serve the story I'm telling. At the same time, I'm happy to save ego-killing for editing, and not for writing in the first place. I can't edit and write at the same time.

My third or fourth revisions will be much better - I just hope that I have enough opportunities to revise that much - I might not. I'll be editing as fast as I can this fall. As everyone tells me, I can always improve it for a book version.
Aug. 17th, 2004 07:27 am (UTC)
commenting on the other comments...
I think there is a difference between a beautiful turn of phrase and what some people consider their darlings. There is nothing wrong with carving an image out of text, nor with saving a beloved phrase - i have a few "outtakes" that i like well enough to keep - and will perhaps one day use. As you said, does the chandelier fit or is it something that stands out.

I often think that the "darlings" stand out. We love them, feel clever, and hold them too tightly. A friend mentioned to me that sometimes the phrases i loved the most sound like me... certainly a problem. If i notice these beloved phrases as I read the work aloud then I know there is a problem.

We all look for those beautiful phrases, but when a work is full of them, or they carve a beautiful image, they don't stand out so much. I have of recent been re-reading a particular author, paying close attention to the construction of description (sentence length, placement and structure).

I was quite stunned at the brilliance of the work, a slow build up of beautiful phrases in a work that might not normally be known for it. The images stand out in my mind more than the words, yet if i wrote them i might be tempted to call several "darlings".

Here is an excerpt:

He flew to Mexico.

And woke to the rattle of steel buckets on tile, wet swish of brooms, a woman's body warm against his own.

The room was a tall cave. Bare white plaster reflected sound with too much clarity; somewhere beyond the clatter of the maids in the morning courtyard was the pounding of surf. The sheets bunched between his fingers were coarse chambray, softened by countless washings.

He remembered sunlight through a broad expanse of tinted window. An airport bar, Puerto Vallarta. He'd had to walk twenty meters from the plane, eyes screwed shut against the sun. He remembered a dead bat pressed flat as a dry leaf on runway concrete.

The woman beside him stirred in her sleep.

He raised himself on one elbow to look at her A stranger's face, but not the one his life in hotels had taught him to expect. He would have expected a routine beauty, bred out of cheap elective surgery and the relentless Darwinism of fashion, an archetype cooked down from the major media faces of the previous five years.

Something Midwestern in the bone of the jaw, archaic and


I don't edit as i write - though sometimes when i flip back in WIPs something will get added or subtracted - minor edits. If i were to edit as I write - i would never finish. :)

I also have noticed, personally, that the more i write the less i hang onto the work. I am less attatched to it.
Aug. 19th, 2004 12:08 pm (UTC)
Re: commenting on the other comments...
when a work is full of them, or they carve a beautiful image, they don't stand out so much

And that is a very good thing to aim for. I love prose where I revel in the fun and joy of reading it, where it all works nicely, but no turn of language clobber me on the head with its bluntness. For all I know, some of those lines my eyes flit so lightly over, were gems of accomplishment which filled the author with glee on writing them - maybe they were darlings in their time, but they've worked out well. I can't help but wonder if that's true of parts of the lovely passage you quoted. "relentless Darwinism of fashion" is such a well-crafted, evocative turn of phrase - I wonder what the author thought of it when it was written?

In the course of recent months of writing, I've been learning more and more the importance of not editing while writing, however tempting. It breaks up the flow of my sentences and makes me forget what I meant to write.
Aug. 19th, 2004 01:14 pm (UTC)
those gems...
that actually, if you are interested, is from "Count Zero" by William Gibson. I never really thought of him as being able to create such simple - powerful - images. I tend to think of his gritty stuff, or the weird stuff, but not things like the first few pages of this novel. The descriptions are gorgeous. Then when you dig a bit deeper you see how even the simple phrase:
"He remembered a dead bat pressed flat as a dry leaf on runway concrete", is not just an image but a metaphor of what happens when nature meets technology. Slipped in, subtle.

Re-reading some of the authors i most admire has given me a different view - reading with close attention to the structure. Not that I have much time, but I find even reading snippets while at work gives me enough to see what I need to do.

I don't know if you have read his stuff, but I like Count Zero, and you can read a snip of it at:

Aug. 16th, 2004 06:11 pm (UTC)
I do think there are those who kill their darlings that shouldn't. I mean, I read for darlings, for the turn of phrase that sets me spinning, for just the right "wow" moment in a scene. I like to think that they'll be written by someone who understands that I'll find them as "wow" as he or she does, and not someone just trying to push down on the textual cement so that the prose is uniform.

Mind, if you've fallen in love with your art deco chandelier and somewhere along the way your work has turned into plain Shaker furniture, you will have to rip it out or suffer the consequences. But I do think there are many times when that chandelier works just fine, and adds to the value of your house.
Aug. 16th, 2004 06:38 pm (UTC)
If zero_gravity hadn't posted on this subject around when you did, I might be flailing to articulate why you're right, since you are. I'm a packrat, and very sentimental in my interior decoration, so I know exactly what you mean. I don't think I have the best decorate place, but it doesn't look all that bad either. I'd like to think my writing doesn't either - but back to what I was going to say. zero_gravity suggested that the real problem which "kill your darlings" hints at is that a writer should separate her ego from her story and her story's needs. An art deco chandelier in a story works best if the spirit of the story is art deco. As a reader, I can pause and admire how nicely it fits into the story; how effective the chadelier phrase is; how elegant and clearly it conveys what it needs to.

It's just as important, when editing someone else's work, to point out the bits which really work as it is to point out what isn't working as it was meant to. (And I'm happy to say, I found a truly lovely phrase in the essay I'm editing tonight.)
Aug. 17th, 2004 06:44 am (UTC)
I'm slightly hostile to "workshop" writing. I think it homogenizes people's work. "Let's all right thinly veiled autobiograpy in simple declarative sentences! Raymond Carver rules!"

Maybe it's changed since the mid-90s when I last gave it a crack.
Aug. 17th, 2004 01:38 pm (UTC)
If we'd had a month together, we might have been endangered. As it was, it was more of an editing workshop with daily new advice-givers and 3 or 4 constants overseeing our dialog. There was a great deal more advice given, many in the form of pithy phrases, but it was amusing how often death and hunting motifs re-emerged in the advice of the daily visitors.

We did very little writing in the workshop, except in the margins of each other's papers, editing and proposing changes, and all disagreeing with each other over so many aspects of style and writing. In the short run, we were in no real danger of shipwrecking each others' styles.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )