Murder Your Darlings

"Murder in the Snow" © 2005 by Kurt Komoda

"Murder in the Snow" © 2005 by Kurt Komoda

A long while back, I had a vivid dream. In this dream, I was basically me, but I was being followed by something. Something that wanted to do me grievous harm.

But in the dream, no one would believe me. I’d describe how I was seeing whatever it was out of the corner of my eye. I’d see it, turn . . . and it wouldn’t be there.

Finally, in the logic of the dream, there was one—or possibly more—person I was trying to convince of my sanity, and I did this by standing under a street light in the middle of a sidewalk, screaming at them that I would show them!

And then, in the dream, I turned my back on my friend(s) and took a step.

Into Death.

It was Death who had been stalking me. Him I’d seen out of the corner of my eye.

It was a horrific dream. Probably the worst nightmare I’ve had in recent memory.

But what I remembered more than just the dream was that when I woke up, I wasn’t screaming. I didn’t yell. I didn’t cry out. I didn’t do any of that.

I whimpered.

One, terrified whimper as I stepped into the chill of Death incarnate.

Now, being a budding writer, my first thought after reassuring myself that I was, in point of fact, not dead was, “This would make a great story.” I jotted down as much of the dream as I could remember.

I didn’t write the story right then, though. No, I wanted the story to be as perfect as possible, and the only way it could remain perfect was for me never to write it.

Logic. It’s a bitch.

I overcame that, eventually. After listening to an episode of the I Should Be Writing podcast (hosted by the multi-talented Mur Lafferty) in which Mur talked about having finally written her ‘inspired by a dream’ story that she had put off writing to make sure she never sullied it by actually trying to write it, I sat down and, in one sitting, wrote about 3000 words of the story. I had several false starts. What POV should I use? Where does the story start? How do I make that whimper scary? I eventually realized that to make it truly horrifying I needed to tell it from another POV than the protagonist. Enter the friend.

I wrote it, workshopped it past the Fountain Pen group, and then set it aside for a while.

Recently, I picked it back up, intent on making it better. So I edited it, making the dialog cleaner, cutting out unnecessary words, etc.

I ran it past the Lawrenceville Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers group (seriously, guys, we need a shorter name), and got a lot of very helpful commentary.

Part of that commentary was that the ending I had written just didn’t work for several people. I’d heard the same thing from the Fountain Pen group as well, but I was convinced I could force it to work.

During the critique, one or two people offered some ideas on how the ending could work better. And I really liked a couple of those.

Over the last couple of weeks, those have been percolating through my head. And last night while driving to the Fountain Pen meeting from work, a gruesome, horrible ending popped into my head—poing!—based on one that someone else had given me during their critique.

I think I finally have something that could work. That I could . . . submit?

All I have to do, now, is write it. Heh.

Now, what does this have to do with the title of this post?

Way back in 1916, a British author and literary critic named Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch published a book called On the Art of Writing. It was a collection of his lectures delivered at the University of Cambridge in 1913-1914. The twelfth and final lecture is called “On Style.” In it, he talks about first what style is not, and gives an example. Then he says the following:

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. [emphasis his]

We still quote this, today, although it’s often erroneously attributed to other writers. I hear it all the time.

The way it’s usually used is when an author has written a particularly clever turn of phrase or bon mot or whatever, they often will try to keep it during the editing/rewriting process because they like it and not because it serves the story. This ultimately hurts their writing.

So, “Murder your darlings.”

My darling in this story that I’ve preserved through all the edits has been that the protagonist turns and walks into Death with a whimper, and disappears. The guys in the Lawrenceville Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers (Pen-acles? The Write Stuff? Wordniks?) made me finally confront this, and I’m going to murder my darling.

<sharpens axe> Heeeere, darling! Come to papa! He has a present for youuuuu! <insert evil chuckle here>

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