Monday, December 24, 2012

Murdering Darlings

During a writing course it is almost inevitable that the instructor will say something like, "As Faulkner said, you have to murder your darlings."  Sometimes the quotation is attributed to Mark Twain or Agatha Christie. It means that the writer must go through the work and prune out any phrase that seems particularly fine.  I have never understood this advice and believe it to be wrong.

In the first place, it was not Faulkner, nor Twain, nor Christie who said it.  (Faulkner's darlings were well-treated and in fact fill volumes.). As near as can be determined the phrase was coined by Arthur Quiller-Crouch in a lecture published as "On the Art of Writing" in 1916.  Mr. Q-C was a distinguished scholar and literary gent but his name does not loom large in the annals of fiction.  Perhaps he slew too many of his.

What I supposed is meant by the advice is that writers should read over their work and if some phrase seems overwrought, fussy, or inappropriate in the context they should cut it out.  But it seems to me that if, when so revising, one comes across a phrase that seems particularly good (a darling) one should, well, leave it be.  I mean the point of writing is to write good stuff, and the writer is the judge of what's good in the work.  How else can one write?

Of course if one's darlings are actually crap, if one has, in fact, impaired judgment, then one is a bad writer, and no advice is apt to help.  The fame of this advice and of many others of the same type exposes the problematic nature of all writing instruction.  One could argue that great surgeons or great engineers have profited from great instructors.  We may prefer a cardiac surgeon who went to Harvard med school and interned at Mass General--it's not a guarantee of quality, of course, but it's reasonable sieve for patzers. But the same is not at all true for writers.  Although many decent writers have been through the schools, many of the best ones arise like mushrooms from obscurity in a manner that remains mysterious.  And there is dreadful writing, containing nothing that anyone would call darling, that is wildly successful.

I suppose the only advice that I'd take from the murder your darlings diktat is to read your work over after leaving it for a period and then ask yourself whether, had you paid cash for it, you'd feel cheated.  Yeah, thin stuff, but teaching writing is all thin stuff.  This leads to a consideration of the obvious case that there is a colossal amount of awful writing put out that lots of people buy, as well as ever greater masses that no one reads.  This is a vaster and different topic.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I haven't posted here much lately because I am writing hard on the novel, which is gradually becoming more consuming.  Maybe historical novels are like that, I mean more than other sorts of novels, thrillers or contemporary literary novels, because the writer becomes immersed in a world that no longer exists. I suppose this is why Henry James famously told his brother that historical novels were all humbug.  In a contemporary novel the writer is fed by experience and by what's going on at the moment.  The characters he creates have open futures, in a sense, and the pace is necessarily the pace of contemporary life, which is fast.

The past, however, was slow.  The novels of the past are slow reading.   The first problem of rendering the past for the modern reader hinges on how to deal with this pacing.  I feel like I'm slowing down in response, closing of, filtering the gush of information down to a trickle.  The second problem is how to avoid pastiche, while still reproducing the minds and speech patterns of the long-dead, in a lively way.  I have no idea if I am solving these problems.

I started this thing with a detailed outline, which is now largely abandoned. Writing is now like walking into a dark cave with a small light.  I'm always surprised by what comes up.  It's extremely enjoyable, though.  I've always loved history, read a lot of it from a boy, and making it live in fictional form is a treat.

There's the worry about whether it will come out right and whether it will be any good.  This is not idle worry, since my record at producing non-thriller adult novels stands at 0-1.  In any case, I seem to be committed to carrying this out.  I have about 200 pp. in the can, which may be half done or a third done--I can't really tell.  I like it, and it's amusing to write.   Perhaps that will have to do.

Meanwhile, I'm accumulating a list of ideas I want to post about and sooner or later I'll hit a gnarly patch in the fiction and I'll want to write non for a while.   It shouldn't take long.