Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Delete All the Words

I used to run. Due to a leg I broke in seven places, this activity is no longer enjoyable. It’s hard and it hurts. My foot falls flat onto the ground and pain shoots up into my brain and I want to cry. I was reminded of the pain last summer, when I tried once again to run. Every few years, I tend to forget how much pain running causes me. I buy really good tennis shoes, shorts, headbands, and load my phone up with Eye of the Tiger.

Running was a passion back in high school, and I was an avid cross country enthusiast and track and field guy, though I was never very good at either sport. I crossed the finish line last every time. I finally lettered my senior year, but felt the school gave me the letter because they had to.

I never quit. I just kept going. I am pretty proud of that letter, and still have it. The letter proves I finished.

As an author, I’v finished a lot of things[1], and I’ve written some good lines:

  • I try to forever hold this visible shape, my name.
  • Old blood seeping into the garden.
  • She returned to become a sickness.
  •  I imagined him with death.
  • She looked at everything in her mind and took a breath.
  •  I crawled into the morning.

I’m being indulgent sharing with you because these are all lines that have been deleted from my published work, and the list is longer, stored in a Scrivener project titled The Great Big Idea File.[2] They are my darlings, but I have not murdered them.[3] I have saved them for future work. They may find a story home yet, although some of the lines are as old as 1991.

When you’ve written something well, but the line doesn’t perfectly fit into the piece of writing you’re working on, don’t delete the words. Don’t murder your darlings. Save them. Place them in a box for later. Let them live and breathe. Go back to them for inspiration.

Listen to your muse; not outdated Edwardianism writing advice from World War I era modernism where real people were murdered across continents. English author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch invented the 1914 advice: “Murder your darlings.”[4] Quiller-Couch’s choice in wording fascinates me. I think of Wendy Darling and her brothers whimsically following Peter Pan through the night sky, second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning. I think maybe there was some jealousy there. Quiller-Couch rewrote four fairy tales: The Sleeping Beauty, Blue Beard, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast. They weren’t that popular, yet J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan was immensely popular, and absolutely soared into the night sky, and, for a hundred fifty years more, continues to be a success, an eternally indulgent, youthful tale. From this perspective, “Murder your darlings” takes on dark connotations.

Authors are insanely jealous people. We always compare ourselves to more successful writers; always wondering why people aren't reading our art. So we give each other bad advice, or continually perpetuate bad advice not realizing it was bad advice to begin with. We turn our art into some kind of bad competition, admiring and secretly hating at the same those ahead of us.
The truth is though, no one is ahead of us. We’re all running, but the finish line does not exist.

[2] For a great article on Scrivener, check out Bryan Collins “Using Scrivener For Blogging: The Ulitmate How To Guide.” I've tried writing posts on Scrivener, but the software is so amazing I fall short of describing its awesomeness. Bryan’s piece gives a down and dirty quick overview.
[3] Forrest Wickman wrote a great piece for Slate in 2013 that discusses where the “Kill your Darlings” writing advice really came from. Please people, stop attributing Stephen King.
[4] You can read Quiller-Couch’s entire Cambridge lectures on the art of writing at

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