Nurture Your Darlings

Aaron Ramos and I were having a discussion the other day about one of the scenes in the draft of his newest novel. I was calling out all of the parts that I thought were particularly well executed, and he admitted to me that the scene was a particularly emotional experience to write. I felt as though I had already known that, even before he told me explicitly. It shone through from the writing.

This got me thinking back to one of the pieces of writing advice that I received a lot early on: the suggestion that writers ought to kill their darlings. The idea goes that we writers get too worked up emotionally about our writing, and that emotional attachment blinds us to elements about our work. Okay, so far so good. That seems logically sound. The next part is where the common advice and I part ways. When a writer finds themselves really liking a scene or even a witty one-liner they’ve written, they’d better scrap it or massively rework it, because it’s impossible for them to evaluate it objectively. In other words, that “darling” thing the writer likes so much needs to be “killed.”

If my former writing group had been advising Aaron, they would have told him that it’s unfortunate that he likes that scene so much, because the fact of his liking it makes it a darling, one that he’s now obligated to kill if he wants to be a good writer.

I long ago called nonsense on this kind of thinking, but what occurred to me most recently was just how weirdly distorted such feedback givers’ worldview is. In order to arrive at the conclusion that ‘kill your darlings’ is coherent advice, the giver must have, more than once, read something and thought, “Ugh. Here’s another one of those annoying, awful scenes that just oozes the disgusting sensation of the author having liked it. Yuck.”

When I think of the scenes that evoke to me that the author really liked what they were writing, I think of Genly and Estraven trudging across across the frozen wilderness in The Left Hand of Darkness. I think of Dr. Kelvin standing at the edge of a sentient ocean in Solaris. I think of Deep Thought pronouncing “42” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I think of the Bremen reveal in Embassytown. I do not correlate this feeling with the worst scenes of the novels I’ve read, but with the best, and also with the best writers.

Poor writing feels very different to me. Sometimes, in the case of the most inept writers, I get the sense that they are not in tune with their emotions at all. But this is relatively rare. The more common impression that bad writing gives me, is that rather than feeling something genuine about their characters themselves, the writer is instead trying to maneuver characters into situations that will evoke a particular response in the reader, feelings that that writer is desiring to affect. One of the most blatant examples of popular writing in this vein is The Game of Thrones, or at least the first 200 pages of it (I wasn’t able to stand any more).

My former writing group was rife with other lesser examples. Most of the writing I saw was attempting to affect something in the reader. I met very few individuals who seemed to care about expressing something themselves.

My advice to Aaron, and to all other writers, is not to kill your darlings, but to nurture them. That scene that you think is really awesome, try to make it the best it can possibly be. Don’t forgive its flaws just because you like it—you’re the author; make it better. What better motivator could one have for wanting a thing to be good than caring about it deeply?