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Bad Writing Advice: On Darling-Killing

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Now that I’m editing a line of fiction anthologies and am duly credentialed to pontificate from both sides of the fence, I find myself succumbing to the temptation to lay down writing advice. Others work this territory harder than I do, but from time to time I figured I should weigh in. Specifically, to debunk Bad Writing Advice.

There are no rules in storytelling, just techniques that tend to work better than others. Much of the best work stretches or breaks the rules. Certain rules are really fashions: techniques that still work, but are no longer deemed a part of current style.

When a technique gets codified into a rule, and the rule becomes a maxim, the point behind the maxim can be forgotten.

Today’s example: the oft-repeated idea that you have to kill your darlings. According to this theory, the element you like best about a scene is the one most likely to betray it. If you’re really in love with an image, situation or line of dialogue, you should cut it, because it stands out too much. It’s too obviously your darling.

It’s true that as you develop a piece, the element that first inspired you to write it might fall by the wayside as the work changes and grows. In that case, sure, you should cut it. But that’s not because you love it. It’s because it no longer fits its context.

This famous writing tip should be adjusted to say, “Make sure that the elements you really care about serve the overall piece.” But if you say it that way, it just seems like common sense, and not a mystical secret. More to the point, it doesn’t sound like a mantra given from on high by a lofty advice-giver. It doesn’t mess with your head, as many supposedly helpful pieces of advice are secretly meant to do, as part of game of dominance between guru and guree.

If a piece of advice seems to sit on your shoulder like a hovering spirit, if you hear it in the gravelly tones of your voice of self-doubt, it is probably Bad Writing Advice. Find and heed its kernel of common sense, but defang it first.

Quality creative work comes from a state of mind that balances, or alternates between, passion and perspective. Self-doubt is as big an enemy of perspective as unearned confidence—probably more so. When making sure that your darlings fit their context, make sure you’re not killing your passion.

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