But what does it actually mean to “kill your darlings”?

It’s a common piece of writing advice that is frequently attributed to William Faulkner: “In writing you must kill all your darlings.” And it sounds cool – a little bit of murder, a little bit of love. But … what does it really mean? Is it just for novelists who need to off their favorite character somewhere within the story?

That’s the most common misinterpretation of the advice: that it calls for a literal – or at least literary – death. That aspiring authors need to read up on fight scenes or medical terminology and autopsy reports. That well-loved characters need to be offed and then mourned, perhaps in the spirit of reaching a word count goal. It’s actually a bit more brutal than that.

Your darlings are the things that make you not want to hand over your work to an editor. The parts you know you’ll resist changing, even if the comments come back and make it clear that no, this won’t be publishable until you do. The words, phrases, or ideas you’ll cling to because yes, this does indeed seem like a fine hill to die on, thank you very much.

Sometimes the comments you get back tell you about other people’s darlings. I had a manuscript returned that asked me to get rid of every single instance of “Therefore.” There were only two, but someone, somewhere, had killed this person’s darlings in the past and it was a lesson he remembered. Therefore (I know, I know) he had to make sure no one else allowed his darlings to live.

Other times it’s a lot harder than searching your document for a single word and finding substitutes. Your entire proposal can be a darling, and it can be rejected outright. Or, of course, there’s “revise and resubmit” in which you’re confronted with a list of changes, and you have to get out your ax. Or at least your red pen.

It’s a balancing act. Clearly whatever you wrote will not be published at this venue exactly as it is, but presumably you want to see it in print there, since you submitted it. Usually, upon first read-through of the comments, some of them even seem reasonable. They might feel like easy changes. Yes, of course I can do A, B, and C. A change here, a tweak there, and you’re working your way down the list exactly like you’re supposed to. Until …

Your darling.

Now, you don’t always have to accept and implement the comments and suggestions with 100% agreement. There is space for a conversation here: I understand where you’re coming from, but I made these choices for this reason. But, more often than not, there’s still some sort of issue that has to be changed. The sticking points where you’ll just be told to revise and resubmit again – or take it elsewhere because clearly you’re refusing to play the game according to the rules – unless you do something about it.

That. That’s your darling.

I, for one, am a fan of copying and pasting my darlings into a separate document where I can pretend they live out a happy life. On a farm in the country, perhaps. Where I could totally visit, if I really wanted to. And where they can live on, unchanged, while I negotiate the feedback and do my best to keep my ego in check (because just look at how darling my darlings are!).

Kill off your characters if you have to, but they’re not your only darlings.

What about you? Do you know your own darlings? Are any of them absolute sticking points?

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