“Murder Your Darlings.”

I’ve seen this quote attributed to Eliot, Fitzgerald, and a host of other writers but most often to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who (supposedly) wrote:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”

The idea being, oftentimes that brilliant little metaphor or clever bit of dialogue that you love so dearly – it just needs to go, to make the story work. It’s a darling in need of an ax.

This is the hardest part of revision, for me. I’m currently trying to rework Chapter 5 of my manuscript. The motivations of the characters needed to change. When I wrote that part of the book, I was still getting a feel for my characters. Now that I’m up to chapter 20 or so, they are telling me that Chapter 5 has got to be significantly revised. I’m okay with that, in principle. The problem is that the old Chapter 5 is littered with darlings. Lines I love that just don’t work anymore with the scene’s new slant. I have to be ruthless and murder them, I know. But it’s hard. Violence just isn’t in my nature.

Do you have this problem? I feel like I need a mourning rite to help me let go of my darlings. Perhaps I should write them on scraps of paper and burn them. Or feed them to my dog. What can you suggest?

6 comments to “Sharpening My Darling Ax”

  1. Maggie Robinson
    · January 23rd, 2007 at 6:28 pm · Link

    Save them for your next book! Don’t delete them altogether…just put them in a safe place in a file somewhere. You never know when they’ll come in handy in the future.

  2. Lenora Bell
    · January 24th, 2007 at 4:13 am · Link

    It is strange how so many of the lines we are most enamored of have to be pruned. So sad. But I’m with Maggie. Save your little darlings for another book.

    Or just keep them around for inspiration.

  3. Alice Audrey
    · January 24th, 2007 at 8:22 am · Link

    I’ve done it so many times now that I hardly flinch. However, I never let ANYTHING go completely. I rename my working file regularly so that I can dip into old versions and look up darlings, just in case I can save them after all.


  4. Lindsey
    · January 24th, 2007 at 9:09 am · Link

    It’s like the Mitch Hedberg joke about writing comedy: “I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.” I just try to convince myself that whatever has to be cut wasn’t really as clever as I originally thought!

    It’s rough, but definitely worth it. It’s much better to have a tightly edited book – and these days you can always have deleted scenes on your website!

  5. Tessa Dare
    · January 24th, 2007 at 9:18 am · Link

    Thanks, you guys. This is what I need to hear. I did a kind of dumb thing yesterday, which was to basically rearrange some of the darlings into a new conversation. And I’m sure it sounds completely stupid. I need to just start over, I know it. Aaargh.

    I shall take my inspiration, as ever, from Jane Austen. She ruthlessly cut whole chapters that didn’t work.

  6. beverley
    · January 24th, 2007 at 3:44 pm · Link

    Yes Eve,

    I’ve been butchering some of my most loved pieces. It’s agony and hell on earth. I always want to keep them around though (you know in another document somewhere) because I’m always so certain something THAT GOOD needs to be used somewhere, sometime…