Sunday, January 19, 2014

Don't Kill Your Darlings - Cannibalize Them!

"Kill your darlings" is one of those quotes that's become so pervasive in writing culture that it's almost comical while still retaining a great deal of truth. We've all got lines we really love, whole passages and pages or even chapters of writing that, when reread, make us feel like we'd really been in the zone for those particular moments. And it's a fantastic feeling that doesn't come as often as we'd like (if we're being honest here).

The problem is that these passages don't work for the overall narrative you're working on. So you scrap them, put them in a separate Word document for safe keeping later, or just delete the hell out of them and let the words disappear out into the digital ether. All of these are correct reactions, but it's the option of safekeeping that I'd like to explore.

I've kept pretty much everything I've ever written. I've got it all saved (and backed up on triplicate external hard drives) and one day, when I'm dead and gone, someone will go through all those files and think "My god...some of this is absolutely terrible!" Yet I cling to it all because it is all of my own creation. They are my projects, my children, my....darlings, if you will. Sometimes it's fun to go back and read old projects. Often, I can remember where I was, what I was doing, and how I was feeling during the writing of a particular piece. This is both good and bad as the emotion of the "then" can affect the editing of the piece in the "now."

My most recent short story collection ("Scaring the Stars into Submission") was a byproduct of this cannibalization of old works. I realized I needed a new project to focus on once I'd finished my masters thesis, so I found a kind of common thread that wove itself throughout the narratives of a few different pieces that were two to three pages long each. Thirty pages quickly became two hundred and seventy-four.

With the personal success of that project, I've decided to cannibalize more of my old pieces that would never see the light of day without serious revision and expansion. This time, I'm going for a more romance/love themed collection of short stories. Of course they'll still be in my typically strange/surreal style, but they will be love stories of a sort. Certainly not like any love stories you've read before; no sparkling vampires, no awful Nicholas Sparks storylines, no melodramatic nonsense, no cliched tripe (hopefully).

I've got 11 old pieces picked out that have some very serious potential (some are already at the six and seven page marks after a bit of brainstorming for ideas this weekend) with another 15 pieces as possibilities. I find this kind of work really fun and challenging. The original pieces contain their own ideas from long ago, but it's time to break down the walls of what they were and mold them into something new, something longer, something deeper and worth reading.

While I loved the original pieces I had written, the revamped stories in "Scaring the Stars into Submission" were of a quality that spoke more loudly and proudly to me. There was more depth and complexity to the characters and the situations. Fattening up the stories also fattened up the meaning which fattened up the experience of the reading.

So don't be afraid to remove whole passages from whatever you're working on, whether it be an essay, short story, or novel. The words remain yours, you continue to hold power over them. Just find a better place to put them and let them grow in whatever manner they choose. You'll be happy you didn't put all your darlings in your digital trash bin.