Sometimes quoted as, ‘murder your darlings’ other times as, ‘kill your darlings’ — whatever your preference, the advice amounts to the same thing: don’t scrimp when it comes to editing. Take to your writing with a red pen and the eye of Marie Kondo going through kitchen cupboards that haven’t been reviewed in a decade, and cull ruthlessly. But boy does it hurt! Murdering darlings is on my mind as I have spent the month of November hanging onto the coat tails of a bunch of friends who have adhered to the daunting discipline of ‘Nanowrimo’. It’s a funny sounding word, isn’t it? Makes me think of Mork and Mindy from the late 1970s; anyone remember Mork’s greeting, ‘Nanu Nanu’? I digress. Nanowrimo is short for National Novel Writing Month. It’s an annual creative writing project when, during the month of November, participants attempt to write a 50,000-word manuscript in thirty days. (Before you reach for your calculator, that’s 1,666 words day.) Can you imagine the amount of murdering that’s to be done at the end of all that? I say coat tails of others, for I’ve never once managed to achieve the target daily word count, but I have them in my sight. I too have been clocking up the words and stockpiling a screed of scrappy sentences. For me it has been the writing equivalent of going to a jumble sale where everything costs £1, and so I go mad, buy anything with the tiniest chink of promise and come home with a blank bin liner brimming with assorted items containing … let’s call it, ‘potential’. At least 50% of it will end up going back into jumble. And so it is with Nanowrimo: there may be some potential in there somewhere but I can guarantee you, there is an awful lot of clipping and snipping to be done.
Mostly I’ve written alone, but a couple of times a week I am buoyed up by the camaraderie of fellow writers as we commandeer quiet corners of cafés at off-peak times. Heads down, we write, breaking occasionally to order tea, or to look up expectantly as one of us begins to laugh at our screen, usually with a tinge of hysteria at what is pouring out of them. There are fist pumps when someone cries, ‘twenty-five thousand’, and motivational shouts of ‘yes you can’ when a forehead hits the table in despair (usually mine). Quality is entirely discarded in place of quantity and so there is often sporadic sharing (competitive, even) as to how dull you think your writing might be. ‘I’ve just spent the last twenty minutes describing someone blowing the surface of a cup of hot tea to cool it down, describing the patterns it makes,’ pitted against, ‘I’ve just put myself in the body of a six year old under a grand piano in a room that hasn’t been swept for three years. I’ve produced a 700-word narrative on the quality of the dust on the floor.’ Needless to say, come December, many of these dreary darlings must be murdered.
Occasionally we read a little of our work aloud and ask for feedback. We’re gentle with each other, for it takes nothing to murder someone else’s darlings. You have no connection to their’s … but one’s own darlings? Well, I make mine wear bullet-proof vests, and when I do cull, I don’t so much murder them as put them in a sanatorium, file them away in folder called ‘darlings’ (what else would I call it?), incubated, ready to be resurrected on another page, another story. ‘You, my darling, will have your day.’ I apply the same principle of ‘waste not want’ to words and sentences as I do to food and heat, which is know it is ludicrous. I know full well that words are not fossil fuels, or £2 avocados; that words are cheap, and that there is an incessant and unrelenting supply of them, yet I can’t quite hone the necessary beady eye needed to jettison them.
Diana Athill was a literary editor, novelist and memoirist who died in January of this year aged 101. She worked with some of the greats of the 20th century – Brian Moore, Molly Keane, Jean Rhys, V.S. Naipaul, Margaret Atwood (there are so many more) and she helped them wield some sharp scissors to better carve and shape their manuscripts. Here’s what she said about the process: ‘You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead. Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect – it’s the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for.’
Smug glee – if only!