[Candice] You’re listening to But Is It Write? A podcast where we discuss, debunk and debate common writing advice.
[Maggie] There’s a lot of writing advice out there. But is it right? Hi everyone, I’m Maggie and I’m here with my co-host Candice Lee. Candice is a full-time author, part-time procrastinator, relentless optimist, writer coach and karaoke star.
[Candice] And my co-host Maggie Derrick is an award-winning Wattpad Star, bisexual artist, young eldritch horror, and dog friend.
[Maggie] Today’s topic is the piece of writing advice that people voted on. This is our first poll ever on Twitter and you, the people, have selected Kill Your Darlings.
[Candice] See, this is an interesting one because we had different people say different things in response to this and I think that’s because it’s a confusing piece of advice. People don’t know exactly what it means or there’s multiple meanings.
[Maggie] I’d like to know how it got misconstrued in the first place. I blame social media. I’m sure it was just some kind of post somewhere along the line that got taken out of context or something, but I’m very curious where the birth of the alternative interpretations of this advice came from, because it originally meant something pretty straightforward. I think. I mean, ‘cause, I didn’t do my research.
[Candice] Because that’s not how we roll.
[Maggie] That’s not what this podcast is about. But as I understand it, the advice Kill Your Darlings refers to, essentially, ruthless editing. It refers to not being precious about your work, and recognizing that sometimes to make your work the best version of itself that it can be you have to get rid of things that you loved about the first draft or whatever draft you’re working from, right?
[Candice] Now I can totally see how it can be misconstrued because it’s literally called Kill Your Darlings, right? I mean, it makes sense that people might think it means kill the characters who are dear to you, especially with a media landscape of Game of Thrones where we just murder people everywhere.
[Maggie] Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s where it came from. Just this idea of fan favorite characters in shows getting killed off and someone was like, oh, I heard this saying once, Kill Your Darlings, that’s what’s happening. You know what, I’m looking it up. But anyway, yeah, that’s a good point. But I think that’s the important distinction right? You’ve got— Oh, it’s actually a movie, too. A 2013 thriller/drama featuring Daniel Radcliffe.
[Candice] Wow, I did not know that.
[Maggie] I didn’t either.
[Candice] We should have watched that in preparation for this episode.
[Maggie] Murder? Nice.
[Candice] Sounds right up your alley.
[Maggie] It totally does. Jack Kerouac gets arrested for murder? Isn’t he— What? Okay, I’m gonna have to look into this. It only got three stars. We’ll see. Yeah, so I think that’s— Coming back to the idea of killing characters very specifically, and I think we’re on the same page here, that there’s a difference between killing your characters out of necessity and making your work better, versus just mindlessly killing characters for the sake of killing characters. And I think that’s what a lot of people think it means.
[Candice] I know that a lot of times, especially with TV, the common advice is: If you don’t kill your characters and leave them dead, then there’s no stakes. It’s like, if I’m watching a show and there’s no real risk of people dying then there’s no high stakes and I don’t care as much because, well, no one’s gonna die so it’s not that interesting.
[Maggie] Ew. I don’t like that.
[Candice] I don’t like that at all. I do understand not bringing back dead characters, because then it’s like, someone dies, oh, they’re going to come back, it’s fine. Then the stakes are low. But the idea that halfway through your book you’re just going to murder half the cast just because it’s shocking and it’s going to, you know, make it like really high stakes. I don’t know if I believe that.
[Maggie] Life and death aren’t the only stakes out there. It almost feels lazy to say that that’s the only way you can create stakes in the piece of writing is to kill off the character.
[Candice] It is pretty lazy. I write romance mostly and I can’t kill off characters because that’s just mean. I mean, I can maybe give someone a dead brother or kill someone’s mom, you know, for sadness and things, but you can’t just kill off the hero because people would murder you, the author.
[Maggie] Or the love interest, can you imagine? Well, then it’s not a romance anymore, is it?
[Candice] Nope, it would be depressing women’s fiction.
[Maggie] I think that could be it’s own episode, probably. Lots of discussion around on that particular topic. But yeah, I think if anyone is sitting there hearing the advice Kill Your Darlings and panicking, or it’s not vibing, that could be part of the reason, is the misinformation out there that has made you think that that means that you have to kill characters, whether you want to or not. We’re here to tell you, that’s not the case.
[Candice] BZZZT, wrong! We are not killing characters today.
[Maggie] No, nobody needs to die here today. Maybe in your book, maybe that’s necessary, but you don’t have to do it, that’s not what they mean. When your editor comes to you and says, All right, it’s time to kill your darlings, that’s not necessarily what they mean.
[Candice] I was going to say “necessarily” because there have been times when my editor came back and said, “This character is a complete zero, get rid of them.” And I had to rewrite my book and take out entire characters and it was painful because editing is the worst and big edits like that are physically painful for me.
[Maggie] I’m right there with you. Whenever I hear people saying, “Oh, I love revising,” I’m like, what’s your secret?
[Candice] What madness is this?
[Maggie] And I’m kind of like, are you kidding me? And especially when it’s something like that, especially when it’s something as major as— I mean, if they’re a side character I suppose it maybe isn’t that big of a deal. But when you have to get rid of a character with more than a few lines or something…
[Candice] I had to get rid of an entire brother. I had to get rid of her brother. So, she was a twin with a female twin, two girls, and they had an older brother, and I wrote the entire book. And my editor comes back and says, “This brother is a zero, you need to get rid of him immediately.”
[Maggie] It was the brother who was the zero, oh no.
[Candice] And I was like, but the whole reason they can’t be together is because the brother doesn’t approve. And I was like, well, grumble grumble grumble, so… But in the end she was completely right. As I did the edits I was like, oh, he’s completely unnecessary and he just is repetitive and I hate him.
[Maggie] And I think that’s one of the biggest things about— Whether it’s getting rid of characters or anything else, I think that’s the hardest part about this advice, is it means having to take a step back and understand that even if the change is super substantial, you’ve got to look past that bubble that you’re living in. Because when you’re writing something— You’re really close to the material and it can be really challenging to separate yourself from the story you’re telling versus the story that’s going to work.
[Candice] And by challenging you mean excruciating?
[Maggie] Yeah, okay, so, story time. In the workshop that I was involved in last year, it was interesting. It was a real mixed bag of writers and stuff that we were working on. But there were two folks in the group who had written very character-heavy pieces and it made me really curious, like it kind of made me sit back and wonder, “Where does this come from?” I remember doing this in school is a child, writing a story with twelve main characters because I was trying to insert very specific personalities, and it felt like it was really necessary. And then I don’t think I ever told the story. And that was kind of the problem that these two writers were running into, they had way too many characters right off the bat and they were really precious to them. I remember the one guy, I think in the first chapter, I wish I could remember the actual number, but I think he had 16 main characters in the first chapter.
[Candice] What? No.
[Maggie] Yeah and so–
[Candice] How do you come up with 16 characters in a single book?
[Maggie] It was one of those books started with us dropping right into some action and it was a compelling opening, but there were so many–and the other thing that was challenging is they all had kind of weird and kooky names so not only did you have these like 16 people to try and keep tabs on, you were like oh right what was that strange name that doesn’t, you know, and I don’t mean non-English names, I mean, like made up sounds and things like that. So it became exceptionally challenging to keep everyone straight and the feedback was you’re gonna have to get rid of some of these characters because one–and his argument was like, “oh but they all have a place somewhere later on in the story. And our mentor, bless her, Carrie Mack, she was like, “But do they?” And I think in his case is creative nonfiction almost. Like he was fictionalizing some things that had happened to me in real life so I think these characters all represented real people and that made it a little hard for him, but after some revision he was able to condense them and sometimes it was just a case like here are a few characters who all kind of play the same basic role they don’t have a standout moment at all in the book so let’s just make the one person and so he did that with a few clumps of these characters was able to whittle it down to, I think 5 altogether. And then another person in the group, they were writing a young adult and I think–and it was so fascinating and really loved it. But they had a group of friends in high school. And again it may have been one of those moments where each of these characters perhaps were representing someone that they had encountered in real life. I don’t know, I can’t say for sure. But it was something that I think again the friend group was six people. And each of them had really–they had really done a really good job of making sure each character had very unique personalities, but in the end didn’t all need to be there and they condensed the friend group down to like the four friends plus the main character.
[Candice] Okay, not bad.
[Maggie] And the thing is, and I can imagine people listening who are super married to their characters, and they’re like “No” they’re like these writers where “These people are important and they serve a purpose to me and in the story, I can’t possibly imagine getting rid of them”. But man, the difference it made when those two writers took the advice and did those revisions that the story was just they went from being clunky and hard to follow to just so much more streamlined, and easy reads, and suddenly you were able to keep track of your cast of characters. It sucks, I’m sure it was really, really hard to do, but if your characters don’t serve a purpose in moving your story forward even if it’s just in like a scene, they probably don’t have to be there and they’re probably just muddying the waters. I’m an artist, I’m all for creating OCs. I know what it’s like to just have like this army of original characters, but maybe just give them their own story. Maybe they don’t have to be there.
[Candice] See, this is why I think it’s a little easier for me character-wise because in my romance novels there is the main female character and the main male character and everybody else is a side character. However, the way I write it is that each side character later on gets their own book and their own chance to be the main character. So I can have a bigger cast of side characters and not need to necessarily insert them everywhere and flesh them out and have them like all really, really important because I know they will get their turn. So I don’t feel like I need to make sure that all of these characters are all perfectly represented in this book because it’s not necessary.
[Maggie] I’ve always admired that in your work because it feels like as much as I see what you’re saying about it being a bit of a blessing I can also imagine that there could be some trickiness involved there, too, I would think.
[Candice] Oh, yeah.
[Maggie] I don’t know. Like you have this idea for a story then you’re like “Oh crap but like in an earlier book I contradict that.”
[Candice] But yeah it’s very, well, nothing in writing is easy so I was going to say. Yeah, it’s really hard to have all these characters and always have to recall back what happened six books ago, but of course it’s hard. Writing is hard. Every aspect of writing is sometimes like pulling teeth.
[Maggie] Is sometimes a nightmare.
[Candice] Which I mean that’s exactly what were talking about when you are told to kill your darlings, like it hurts. It really hurts.
[Maggie] Yeah, and like, let’s also think about you know, getting away from just the characters, the idea of having to get rid of stuff period in your work. Especially when it’s something that you’re proud of or you feel is really, you think is important, but again as the author you’re so close to the material that it’s hard for you to see it objectively. Subjectively? You know what I mean.
[Candice] The word. We’re writers. We know how to use words.
[Maggie] I use the words properly on the page and the rest can just deal with it.
[Candice] Yeah, I don’t bother using words properly in real life. I save my brain power for the paper and everything else is blah.
[Maggie] I don’t bother using words.
[Candice] I communicate through interpretive dance.
[Maggie] It’s made our long-distance friendship very awkward.
[Candice] But I was going to say, I beta read for different author friends. And one of them I was reading her book, and I swear to God, I can’t give you page counts because this was–I was reading on my Kindle–but everything from 30% of the book to 60% of the book—like that entire 30%–it needed to be gone. It was just repetitive and it was just the same sorts of scenes over and over again with the same sort of conversations happening over and over again and I told her, I was like, “Listen girl, sorry to do this to you, but a full 30% of this book just needs to go.”
[Maggie] It does not need to be there.
[Candice] And I’m sure she thought it did because all of those conversations are so important and I’m like, “Yeah, condense them into one or two, not like eight.”
[Maggie] And I think that’s where that idea of taking–I would love to do a full episode on this advice–that idea once you finish a draft setting it aside and then waiting a little bit before you come back and you do round two instead of, instead of like trying to jump into your revisions as soon as you get it done. And I know that for you that’s not necessarily always possible. But whenever possible it’s really helpful because it helps get you away from the material and so that when you come back to it you got a fresh perspective, you’re looking at it with clear eyes hopefully. And it helps you see those moments. And like right now with the manuscript I’m working on, I’m really bad for writing short. Like every book I’ve completed so far has come up far too short for its genre. And even though I’m writing for an online audience and they kind of prefer a shorter read, it bugs me because I’m like, “Oh God, it feels like a complete story, but there’s so much that I would need to add to make this a proper length if I ever wanted to do something else with it.” So for the first time ever I’m trying to write long, and it’s so weird to be working away and being like, I think had a tweet from a couple weeks ago going like “I am going to have to cut so much from this manuscript, it is weird” but I feel like it’s easier to do that, but you have to be able to recognize it. You know you have to be able to say when you’re looking at your manuscript does this really have to be there, is it pushing–is propelling the story forward? If not, maybe not.
[Candice] See one thing that I think really helps in editing–so I’ll create a lot of teasers and so I’ll pull out a couple quotes here and there–or like at paragraph and I’ll put them on like a nice pretty graphic and it’ll be a nice little teaser. But as I pull that out I’m like “Oh, out of this paragraph of 100 words, every other word can be just like taken out” and because I need to condense these words into a small little cute graphic I have to pare it down. And when you take it paragraph by paragraph or line by line, and you tried—and you tell yourself “Okay I have to condense this to make it fit on this graphic what can be taken out?” ‘A lot’ is the answer a lot can be taken out. And if you just read your book straight through and don’t really take the time to look at each line individually then you kind of just skim I guess. But if you go slowly and you look at each part by itself you can really see where you can tighten up the prose and get rid of a lot of stuff or conversely sometimes you’re like, “Oh, I should’ve used a paragraph or a word here and it would’ve really make this part stronger.”
[Maggie] I’ve heard–and I haven’t done this yet–but I’ve heard of some people who will when they go to do their revisions the first thing that they’ll do is they’ll go through that draft literally line by line like they’ll cover up the rest of the page so that they aren’t skimming. Since their brains aren’t jumping over things because, of course, especially as the writer you know it’s coming so it’s easy for your brain to kind of jump along the page. So they’ll take paper or ruler or whatever and they will print it out and then they will go line by line, just so they can see it. Ironically by condensing it to one line at a time, they’re kind of seeing the whole thing a little bit more clearly. And then they’re able to say, “Wait a minute, this does not have to be here what was I thinking?”
[Candice] Now see because I’m lazy, I get my editors to do that for me. Like I have editor who will got kind of go line by line and just show me like just add notes here and there you know “you don’t need these words, tighten up this” and I don’t have to kind of do it myself because laziness.
[Maggie] Sure. And now I think you just segued really well into a part of this advice that, maybe the hardest part of this advice, is that sometimes you don’t want–sometimes you feel like you don’t have to get rid of stuff. Now I’m dancing around it. I’m going to stop sugarcoating it. Some of us are really precious about our work and we have a really hard time accepting the fact that what we’ve put down on the page as it is isn’t working. I see this a lot. It can probably be its own episode. It’s probably the hardest but most important part of kill your darlings as advice is that you need to be able to let go, you need to be able to not be precious about the stuff that you have put on the page especially with your first draft.
[Candice] Oh yeah. Because so the thing is when when you think that what you’ve written is the best that’s amazing good for you because you need that self-esteem to get through the real difficultness that is creativity but you ain’t that good. Sorry. Like nobody is that good that their first go around is going to be spectacular. There is always room for improvement, and if you go into the editing process with the thought that “what what I’ve written is perfect and great and maybe I’ll change a few typos here and there but overall it’s great” it’s going to be painful for you because you’re going to get that manuscript back and it’s going to be marked up with the red and strikeouts everywhere and you’re gonna cry.
[Maggie] You’re right and it sucks. and I was one of those writers absolutely for the longest time. It wasn’t that I necessarily believed that my first drafts were perfect. I do know lots of writers who approach their work that way and they’ve got to I’m trying to be really diplomatic here, they’re going to have a hard time. But that’s one of the most important things that–what am I trying to say here? I feel like I recognize that I was becoming a stronger writer when I stopped being so precious. I remember and I’ve told the story of million times, the very first time I sent you pages for The Star in the Ocean and you sent back it was so marked up, there were so many comments.
[Candice] I tore it apart.
[Maggie] You did and I was devastated. I was like “Oh my God I’m going to quit now I’m the worst.” And I think it’s because it was coming from you and I was like “Okay Candice isn’t trying to hurt me, I know that she is just trying to help me make this the best it can be and I know she knows what she’s talking about so maybe I need to stop being such a whiny B and listen to what she is saying.” Just think about it, because this is another thing too, when someone gives you feedback you don’t have to take it. It’s ultimately–I mean unless you got an editor who’s like “No I’m sorry, you’re not going to publish this as it is”. But like when you’re getting revisions or you’re getting feedback from beta readers or what have you, it’s up to you whether you take that advice, but it’s important to be able to sit back and go “okay why are they giving me this advice?” because I think we all naturally get defensive like our writing is personal for us even if it is just a fluffy story or whatever. And so it’s easy to feel like it’s almost a personal attack on you when really it comes down to–and somebody had this really great line it might’ve actually been my mentor Carrie in our workshop—that if you’ve got a book published, you don’t get to stand there in the bookstore and explain everything to whomever buys it.
[Candice] Ooh, I like that, I like that idea.
[Maggie] Because when we would critique, what would happen is the person whose work was being critiqued would go into what we called the cone of silence. And so as we went around the room and everyone gave their feedback on the piece, the writer couldn’t say anything. No matter how badly they wanted to jump in and interject and argue, they had to just shut up and listen until it was their turn. And then they had a minute or two where they were allowed to ask questions. And in those–there were definitely a few people. For me, I’m lucky I got it all out of my system in working with you and doing Wattpad book clubs. And so I think I had already learned to just sort of take what makes sense and leave the rest, and also to be able to take the feedback and advice go “okay where is this person coming from” because it doesn’t matter what your intention is with the piece you can have this beautiful amazing fantastic idea but if it’s not coming across to your reader, that it doesn’t matter. You don’t get to explain it to them. And that was the case. And I think every writer in that room learned that eventually by the time we were done, was that anytime that they felt they had to really explain something, or really defend something, they realized “I’ve missed something, I haven’t hit the mark because I shouldn’t have to explain this to you.” That’s not the reader’s fault.
[Candice] That’s a really good anecdote and I love that. Because a lot of the time that’s what happens you know you write something and it gets sent to a beta reader or an editor or even just a friend and they say “I didn’t understand this part” or you know “this is confusing” and you want to go “oh but”. Well, you don’t get to do that! Whatever the “oh but” is going to be you gotta put that in the book.
[Maggie] Yup, exactly. Exactly. If you find yourself having to explain something then it’s your responsibility I think as the writer to sit back and go “okay what did I miss? What isn’t landing here?” and you can’t blame it on your reader. And I think there are a lot of writers especially I think more when they’re starting out we all have to learn. I think there’s this want, a need, a desire, on a really almost primal writer level to defend and explain, and if you have to do that it unfortunately, sorry, means that you missed something. That you could go back and you could make that stronger because your reader isn’t dumb and unfortunately I saw a lot of things in this program and there were definitely some times where there would be writers who were like “well you just don’t get it.”
[Candice] Well, your reader’s not going to get it. Sorry.
[Maggie] Exactly. Like trying to say like “oh well you’re not sophisticated enough to understand what I’m going for” it’s like actually that’s what drafts are for. It’s allowed to be terrible, it’s allowed to miss the mark. That’s why you revise.
[Candice] Which is an entire episode unto itself.
[Maggie] Oh man, yes. Woo, I’m getting all worked up here. I’m fine.
[Candice] Getting passionate up in here.
[Maggie] I am! I’m getting passionate about because I think because I used to be that writer who would get defensive and feel like they had to explain everything I can see how far I’ve come. And I just want to take every writer and shake them and be like “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to hurt, and it’s gonna suck but you’re gonna come out of it on the other side with a better draft, being a stronger writer, you just gotta trust the process where you kill your darlings.”
[Candice] I feel like I’m kind of on the other side, so I can kind of see this kind of unemotionally and dispassionately because okay. So here’s what I say: being a writer or being any creative at all is like swinging between delusions of grandeur and crippling self-doubt. And I live in crippling self-doubt a lot. So when I get negative reviews or I get somebody panning something or an editor says this sucks, my first reaction is usually “You’re right, yep, that part was absolutely terrible, oh yeah that was just bad.” So I’m very open to the idea that I’m not that good actually. That’s not a bad thing because it means that I’m going to fix it and the next time it’ll just be that much better. If nobody ever gave me negative critiques I would stay the same bad writer I was at the beginning.
[Maggie] Oh. So so true. Although now I’m curious and I need to ask, have you always been that way? Have you always been that easy to receive feedback?
[Candice] It’s hard because for a long time I never finished anything or showed it to anyone and it wasn’t until I started being indie published and I started getting reviews from readers that I started getting like… I don’t know. Because when you see—I guess when I would see things from editors I would kind of accept that. I suppose I don’t think I was ever very defensive. I’m sure I was a little bit like nobody wants to be told that they suck but you know I was willing to accept it no matter how hard it was, I would kind of like… For example I got the critique about that brother saying he is a zero get rid of him and I remember thinking “But that’s so much work!” It wasn’t that I thought this brother was the best character ever I was willing to consider that maybe he should be gone but I was like “but that’s a lot of work and I’m lazy and do I have to?” And I was thinking but you know what like she’s right, I’m just being lazy, it will be better if I get rid of him I can see that. So maybe I always had very low self-esteem and I just assume everything I write is bad and I’m pleasantly surprised when it’s not.
[Maggie] And when people like it, it’s amazing. You’re great, come on.
[Candice] Well, thank you.
[Maggie] You’re welcome. I just say that because I love you.
[Candice] Aw. You’re wonderful.
[Maggie] You’re wonderful, too. Shoot. Well, I guess that means I think we covered our bases with this one.
[Candice] I think so.
[Maggie] So then I guess we have to ask the question: Kill your darlings, is it right?
[Maggie] Yes, it is, sorry you guys. Sorry, y’all it’s right. Just you know even if it takes some time, the key is take a step back, don’t be precious, you can do it. We believe in you.
[Candice] It will make you a better writer.
[Maggie] It will absolutely make you a better writer and it doesn’t mean that you have to kill someone to kill your darlings.
[Candice] It might.
[Maggie] But it doesn’t necessarily have to. We don’t all have to be George R. R. Martin. Is that his name?
[Candice] George R.R. Martin. Yes.
[Maggie] Yes! I got it! I was not a Game of Thrones fan. Sure, that one, too. You know, I’m done, I’m sorry.
[Candice] Okay. Should we wrap it up before we get more incoherent?
[Maggie] I am sober, too. There is no reason for this. Okay. We did it. We covered the advice and if you would like us to cover some advice of your choosing you can reach out to us on Twitter @butisitwrite – W-R-I-T-E because we’re clever – or you can send us an email. I was going to say “at but is it write” again that’s almost true, it’s just email@example.com. Anything else? Am I missing anything?
[Candice] I think that’s probably about it.
[Maggie] Sweet, well then we will talk to you next week y’all.
[Candice] Excellent. See ya!