Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Kill Your Darlings by Mark Chisnell


It’s an old saying in writing circles, kill your darlings. The instruction is not to commit filicide – thank goodness, because there are writers out there who would seem prepared to do anything for a bestseller – no, it means cut out the best bits of your writing. 

Whenever you think your prose has hit the most wondrous heights – delete it. The reason that’s usually given for this is that if you love those words so much, then you have lost a sense of objectivity and that’s dangerous. If all that fabulous language isn’t moving the story along efficiently, then it’s got to go whether you love it or not. It can’t just sit there looking pretty. Unless you're Zadie Smith.

The phrase is usually ascribed to William Faulkner and an earlier version - murder your darlings - originated from a lecture at Cambridge University given by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

I recently had cause to murder a real darling in the final rewrite of my new novel Powder Burn. Originally it contained several viewpoint characters, but in this last go-around I’d decided to strip it back to just two. One of the consequences was that my favourite scene in the entire book had to go, because it was written from one of the deleted points of view – oh, the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth...

Anyway, I couldn’t let it die completely, and here it is... but reading it again a couple of weeks after the act, I’m glad I did it. It was written for the book’s original audience of snowboarders and mountain folk. I’m hoping that the final version of Powder Burn will reach a wider audience, and this scene might have driven them away.

The set-up is that a character called Vegas has climbed a mountain in the Himalayas to attempt to be the first person to ride a snowboard back down it. By the time he’s got close to the top and into position for the descent he’s not in good shape, exhausted and with the stirrings of altitude sickness. Will he climb back down, or ride to his destiny? And what will that destiny be?

He knew what he was there to do after the months of planning and preparation. He must climb and ride. And nothing, not even the bowel snake of fear, was going to stop him. This was his last chance, and every cell of his body knew it. He moved over to the edge and started looking for a place to get down into the chute as he ascended those last few yards. He dragged himself upwards until the cornice on top of the main ridge began to tower over him. He couldn’t go any further, and there was no easy step down, at least none that he could see. But it was only a couple of yards and so without really thinking about it he jumped. He landed flat on his back, and sank into the snow.
Given the steepness of the slope he had jumped onto, it now occurred to him that he was lucky that he hadn’t hit a hard crust. Otherwise, he might well have started the first descent of Powder Burn on his ass. He lay there for a long while, the sun giving the illusory impression of warmth, while he struggled again for breath. It would have been easy to fall asleep. Just to slip away, rest his weary body. But eventually, he remembered that he was there for a reason and he sat up. He wrestled to get the pack off his back, but the snowboard was strapped to it and the tail had dug deep into the snow. He couldn’t work out why he couldn’t drag the pack round in front of him. He floundered, digging a deep hole until finally he got his arms out of the straps and rolled clear.
He stared at it for a while, anger subsiding. Then he fiddled with the strap buckle that was holding the board onto the pack, but it wouldn’t set at the angle for quick release. He pulled a mitten off and tried again, then fumbled until he found a way of pushing the strap back through the buckle an inch at a time. After what seemed like an eternity of effort the board was loose. He set the edge into the snow so the board sat perpendicular to the slope and kicked his feet into the bindings. The hard plastic straps were easier to deal with, and he got them ratcheted up tight with relative ease. He was ready. What about the headcam on his helmet? There was a switch. He wasn’t taking his mittens off again. He reached up and fumbled, fingers thick through the cloth and cold. It felt like he got it. Whatever.
He stared down the chute. The walls seemed to be getting closer together, moving in on him like some giant car crusher. His breath rasped in the neoprene face mask. The backpack - he turned and found it lying behind him. The ice axes were still strapped to the outside. He’d forgotten those as well. The quick release buckles chose to work. He stuffed the axes handle-first into the snow and struggled into the backpack straps, then looped the axe leashes around his wrists. He adjusted the goggles, pushed at the face mask. Then there really was nothing else to do. He had to go.
He stood up, and immediately the board started to slide sideways down the mountain under the extra weight. He was pushing a gathering wall of snow in front of him and already gaining speed, reeling at how steeply the slope fell away beneath him. It crossed his mind that he could just cruise down like this. Then he remembered Lens and the camera, and a switch clicked in his brain. He had never stepped back, never bottled a drop or a jump or a run. He flicked his hips and his board pointed straight down the slope.
The acceleration was a familiar sensation, and the trained responses kicked in from thousands of hours of riding. But never before had he dealt with this much gravity, at this altitude. The adrenaline rush flushed through him with the avalanche of raw sensation, of clumsy response. Of nerves and muscles doing whatever they could to keep him upright and pointing down the hill. Somewhere, there was a voice saying - put in a turn and slow it down, this is the limit of control. But the chute walls were a fuzzy black blur and with the tunnel narrowing and quickening and flashing past on either side with terrifying closeness, the fear of blowing the turn and hitting the wall rose like bile and drowned even that shred of conscious decision making. It was all he could do to control and respond to the board, the snow. The froth of fear and reaction pushed the voice of experience under for the last time.
Then he fired out of the bottom of the chute and the run didn’t look so threatening. It was wider and the wall on the left hand side had disappeared. It didn’t matter that riding over the cliff was just as fatal an error as slamming into the rock – he felt the psychological pressure of making the first turn ease. He gently put some pressure onto his toes to push into a turn away from the wall. He was on perfect snow and the board – yabbering and hammering at his legs - responded. Now it flashed through him. He realised what was beyond the edge ahead. He didn’t panic. He just pushed a little too hard instead of rolling into another turn. Even then, it was far from disastrous. The board was hitting the snow with too much angle and too much speed. But it could have just bitten deeper into soft snow, slamming into a huge, thigh-jellying power slide that if controlled, would, if nothing else, have finally slowed him down.
But some confluence of snow type, temperature, humidity, wind, and geography ensured that his board dug only so far into the snow before it hit a layer of ice. The edge started to skid along the top of this harder surface, while the snow above it let go of its frail grip - just as it would in an avalanche. For all the resistance it provided at this critical moment, it might as well have been on roller bearings. He felt nothing more than the sudden rush of acceleration and a moment later, along with a couple of hundred pounds of snow, he flew off the edge of the mountain and out into space. He was falling, spinning in a whirl of powder, unable at first to comprehend what had happened. But he had a long way to go. Time to realise that he was all done. That there was nothing left to hope for, save a miracle landing. And perhaps more realistically - that it wouldn’t hurt. There was a feeble blip of anger at his error, then resignation. No screaming, no histrionics, becalmed in utter helplessness, then nothing.

14 comments:

Pauline Fisk said...

Blimey, Mark. I feel honoured to be the first to get in here and comment. This is really good. I did not expect it to end up as it did, though I probably should have done. An excellent advert for the book [if this is the stuff he's throwing away, what's the rest like....etc] and a fine piece of writing.

I have a 'spares' file where I put all the removed stuff from whichever novel I'm working on in the fond hope that I'll find a home for it and it won't be lost. I never do though. Plenty of darlings have died in my writing life.

Lee said...

Do you want an honest comment?

Bill Kirton said...

Powerful stuff, Mark, and I'm with Pauline on it. With reference to killing one's darlings, though, I just wanted to add the maybe tongue-in-cheek comment of Elmore Leonard who sums up his '10 rules for writing' with his 'most important rule', which is 'If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it'.

Reb MacRath said...

Good advice, as a general rule. But you've also indicated, in your remark about Zadie Smith, that the issue's more complex, with wonderful exceptions. Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale is studded with diamonds. Thrillers are often held up as obvious examples of books where a glittering style kills the kicks. But John Farris, author of The Fury, proves the adage wrong time and again. And I can' imagine The Picture of Dorian Gray without Oscar Wilde's epigrams or lovely prose. Summary: I agree with the rule in general...but, man, do I cheer the exceptions. Fine blog!

Mark Chisnell said...

Thanks Pauline, Bill and Reb - I used to keep an 'out-takes' file for my darlings, but now there are blogs ;-)

And I'm a huge fan of Elmore Leonard's rules, but I kinda love breaking them every now and again too... that's what rules are for, Reb, right?

Lynne Garner said...

I recently had to 'kill' large sections of a book because the story was just not working. It was hard. I looked at all those 100's of words and considered the time they'd taken to write. But I looked again and decided it wasn't wasted time, it was time I'd spent practicing my craft.

Ruth Harris said...

Mark, I don't kill my darlings. Instead, I put them in a medically induced coma.

Specifically, I put them in a file called "To Be Used?"
Never know when some forgotten gem can be used or even just triggers an idea.

Smart of you to re-purpose in a blog!

John A. A. Logan said...

Enjoyed that excerpt (or ex-excerpt!)
As Pauline said, it's a great advert for the book whether it's in or out...

I recall hearing that T. S. Eliot and Quiller-Couch used to lock horns quite fiercely in opposed debate...it might also be an era-specific piece of advice...back then, advice to murder the darlings might have been needed...maybe sometimes these days there are occasions they could do with life-support instead of termination...on a case-by-case basis of course!

Maybe the wisdom of it is in advising that the writer him/her-self should be deciding what is and what is not...a darling...

You could be in more trouble if a London editor who had a bad day/week/year gets hold of your manuscript and feels like going on a kill-spree...

There must be final wisdom in the idea though...in a documentary on Elia Kazan he describes the editing of On The Waterfront...he just couldn't get the film to work no matter what he tried...it went on for weeks, the impasse...until it occurred to him to cut his favourite scene in the film, the funeral scene...(the one that isn't there any more)...he cut it as an experiment...the film then "worked", "flowed"...Kazan didn't know why...it just did.

(But then the danger of these "rules" is when someone inexperienced, editor or author...gets the rule in their head like a mantra, and thinks it's a blanket policy to apply to all their work...all their darlings...and then, much worse, other people's Darlings!)

A writer deciding a good section of writing should not be in their own book, though, because the whole is better for the excision...well, that is an important skill, probably hard-won over time, trial and error!

John A. A. Logan said...

I hunted down the essay in which Quiller-Couch advised the murder of all the Darlings...talking of era-specific...some of the other advice/language might raise some hackles nowadays, so I introduce it as evidence...in a sort of cat-among-pigeons gesture(!)

Q's essay ends:

"And Flaubert, that gladiator among artists, held that, at its highest, literary art could be carried into pure science. ‘I believe,’ said he, ‘that great art is scientific and impersonal. You should by an intellectual effort transport yourself into characters, not draw them into yourself. That at least is the method.’ On the other hand, says Goethe, ‘We should endeavour to use words that correspond as closely as possible with what we feel, see, think, imagine, experience, and reason. It is an endeavour we cannot evade and must daily renew.’ I call Flaubert’s the better counsel, even though I have spent a part of this lecture in attempting to prove it impossible. It at least is noble, encouraging us to what is difficult. The shrewder Goethe encourages us to exploit ourselves to the top of our bent. I think Flaubert would have hit the mark if for ‘impersonal’ he had substituted ‘disinterested.’

For—believe me, Gentlemen—so far as Handel stands above Chopin, as Velasquez above Greuze, even so far stand the great masculine objective writers above all who appeal to you by parade of personality or private sentiment.

Mention of these great masculine ‘objective’ writers brings me to my last word: which is, ‘Steep yourselves in them: habitually bring all to the test of them: for while you cannot escape the fate of all style, which is to be personal, the more of catholic manhood you inherit from those great loins the more you will assuredly beget.’

This then is Style. As technically manifested in Literature it is the power to touch with ease, grace, precision, any note in the gamut of human thought or emotion.

But essentially it resembles good manners. It comes of endeavouring to understand others, of thinking for them rather than for yourself—of thinking, that is, with the heart as well as the head. It gives rather than receives; it is nobly careless of thanks or applause, not being fed by these but rather sustained and continually refreshed by an inward loyalty to the best. Yet, like ‘character’ it has its altar within; to that retires for counsel, from that fetches its illumination, to ray outwards. Cultivate, Gentlemen, that habit of withdrawing to be advised by the best. So, says Fénelon, ‘you will find yourself infinitely quieter, your words will be fewer and more effectual; and while you make less ado, what you do will be more profitable.’"

Mark Chisnell said...

Ruth, I wonder if everyone has an 'out-takes' file or something like it? I turned one of mine into a book - Pressure Falling, Short Stories of Stormy Seas, and it sells steadily!

Maybe the rule should be that there's nothing in any draft of any book that's untouchable? Instead of an admonition to cut the pretty stuff...?

Although I must admit to a wry smile after wading through John's Quiller-Couch quote (trying saying that quickly). Maybe it's a period thing, but he didn't seem to mind a bit of purple prose himself....

CS McClellan/Catana said...

I'm currently working out a short story that started as the backstory of a novel's character. The idea was compelling, but it didn't belong. I hated taking it out, but I'm so glad that I didn't simply delete it.

Reb MacRath said...

I'm with Mark on the Q-C quote. And, thinking back on my earlier post, I'd add: maybe the key test should be the natural range and flexibility of the writer's voice. As a general rule, it's bad for any writer to sound like a singer straining for the high notes. To me, Mark Helprin--even at his most ornate--reads as if he's writing within his given range, without straining in the least. If Elmore Leonard ever tried to write like Helprin, the results would be a scream. Even so, remember another thriller writer who's pretty much forgotten now: Richard Condon, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate, was highly regarded in his day as one of the most literate and polished stylists around. Lawrence Sanders, once one of the kings of the commercial heap, wrote sentences that made you weep for their infernal beauty, nicely mixed with short, crisp, noir.

Mark Chisnell said...

A nice take-away from this discussion, Reb - 'Don't Strain for the High Notes'

julia jones said...

Note to self: do not let beloved 17 year old set off to the mountains for Feb half term with his newly-acquired board
Note to Mark: a snowboarders novel sounds like a great idea - and fortunately for you there are almost certainly more snow-boarders than snow-boarders mothers.

I would have said something profound about this extremely interesting post but that was yesterday and everyone else has said it already.