Let Go of the Good Stuff

by Tom Swift

There is a phrase that comes up in seemingly every writer’s workshop in North America: Kill your darlings. (Or sometimes the more violent “murder your darlings.”) Conjure an image of a pipe-smoking male, or a neck-scarf-wearing woman, at the front of a class espousing this unassailable mantra of good writing. In response, you can see nodding heads and hear dutiful scribbling on gold-leaf, leather-bound notepads.

The commandment is attributed to Oscar Wilde. Or Faulkner. Or at least one credible source just consulted says Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Who no one in your workshop has heard of. Regardless of its originator, it’s a dreadful phrase for a couple of reasons: first, no one otherwise uses the term “darlings” anymore (certainly not in the plural) and, second, be a lover not a fighter.

Yet here you go applying this trope yourself as a means to cement a bit of learning. Or that’s the idea anyway.

As a writer you spend a lot of time getting not very far, usually, and yet every so often a line or a scene slips out that is nothing short of brilliant. Except, really, when you stand back and look at your shiny object there on the page you know deep down that it does not serve your story. In fact, it’s simply out of place. (Maybe, frankly, because it’s too good. Alas.) It’s a lovely, it’s a darling, But if you have fidelity to your story, you need to mercilessly excise it but good.

Now is the moment for the hoped-for life parallel: all over the place you encounter actual and possible darlings — whether items you could own, stability you could achieve, ladies you could love, business ventures you could launch. These brilliant notions really do only one thing: they get in your way.

For when you hold onto incoherent possibilities of what you could do you are, by definition, taking energy away from what you are doing. You are also stealing time from what you might do.

Letting go of the perfectly good is not easy. Villains you can kill. But darlings are so nice!

Yet you have to ask: is this serving your story?

If not — cue the pipe smoke — you know what you must do.