Precious Prose – Killing Your Darlings

Did you ever write something you really liked – but deep down you knew it wasn’t really working? Perhaps it resonated with you to the point you dug your toes in and refused to cut it – preferring to perform major plot surgery to keep it in? Maybe you told yourself a few lies about how well it worked and took every suggestion it wasn’t as a personal attack?  It might be a turn of phrase or a whole subplot, but sometimes we are our own worst enemies when it comes to precious prose.

Identifying Precious Prose.

I once read about a woman at a writing conference who was publicly critiqued by an agent.  When he was part-way through the reading he stopped and said to her: “You really like this sentence don’t you?”  She had to admit she did.  It was a little piece she was particularly proud of.  It sounded good, and the imagery was good.  It just didn’t work in the scene.

You can often recognise precious prose, if you get a little thrill about the words you’ve chosen or the imagery you’ve sketched.  You like it because of its stand alone merit rather than because it bolsters up the story.  However you want your reader engaged in the story, not pulled out of it by self-indulgent word-smithery.

It might well be brilliant (I’m sure yours is), but it never hurts to ask a few questions.  Is the language consistent with the rest of the piece?  Does the passage drive the story forward?  Does it contain information crucial to plot or character development?  Will it engage your reader?  If the answer to any of these questions is no – you may be dealing with precious prose.

Part of the difficulty is being objective.  If you feel you’re too close to the piece – ask someone else.  Preferably someone you can trust to be blunt.

Dealing with Precious Prose.

The best way to deal with precious prose is to slash and burn and start with a clean slate.  It’s harsh but effective.

But before you start protesting (and I can hear the collective intake of breath from my writing group even as I write this) or trashing your entire novel – there is a safety protocol to follow.

  • Cut the potentially precious piece out of your text and paste it into another file.  (Maybe the piece is brilliant).
  • Consider the original body of work – does it read better without it?
  • If not try redrafting without using the same phrasing.  I’ve wasted many hours trying to re-work a favourite paragraph.  But if you’ve saved your piece, you have nothing to lose.
  • Move on.  Sometimes you just need a little bit of time and a fresh perspective before you take another look.

An Example.

I wrote a piece a few months ago that I believe falls into this category.  I liked it.  A lot.  A few alarm bells sounded though when I realised it had no time frame.  I even talked to my writing group about where I could slot this into the novel.  A word of advice: If you even think it could be slotted in somewhere – it doesn’t need to be there at all.  It certainly captured my character’s voice, but I should be doing that in the story anyway.  It’s not long so I’ve included it to give you an example.  This is in Josiah’s POV:

Some days are so full, so bright and powerful they sear themselves into your memory.  So when everything else dims and fades they remain as clear and as crisp as the day you lived through them.  In the course of my lifetime there have been only a few, yet those days seem to define the whole better than all the rest of them put together.

The day Alyssa agreed to be my wife is the brightest. I can still see the soft flush on her cheeks when I asked her to marry me.  The way she lowered her gaze and how long that second felt before she looked up and I saw her answer reflected in her eyes.

When I think of that moment I can still feel the echoes of joy resonating through time.  Touching me even now.  Sometimes I like to take that day out and hold it.  To remember what it felt like to be the man I was then; when my future was untold and full of possibilities.

But it is impossible to capture even a moment of time.  No matter how hard you try, it is always flowing forward.  And all memories of her are bound to the one that overshadows them all.

The day she died.

Joy is overtaken by the weight of loss.  The breath-stealing, unacceptable truth that she is gone and I am powerless to bring her back.  Even now my heart is speeding up, racing towards it, as though this time it might end differently…

I tossed up the idea of using this passage as a prologue.  But I’ve read the prologue warnings – and The Fall of the Kings is not about Josiah and Alyssa’s past.  I also thought of using it as the introduction to a new section, but even then it isn’t consistent with the way Josiah narrates the story.  So it’s been cut.

A beloved piece of writing, however, is never wasted.  This piece has at least gone out to the world as an example.  It also lives on in my character folder for Josiah and in my culled-favourite file.  There are all sorts of little treasures in there that I re-read when I need a pick-me-up, and which one day may be resurected in another form.

All of our prose is precious, whether it makes the final cut or not.  But as a good jeweller knows, a gem will shine brightest in the right setting.

Have you ever written something you’ve become precious about?  What do you do with those unfinished pieces of writing you just love?  What do you think of Josiah’s little narrative?

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11 thoughts on “Precious Prose – Killing Your Darlings

  1. I loved that narrative Raewyn.
    Sometimes I take those precious bits of prose that have to be culled and put them I’m another file full of “inspiration” or I turn them into a short story, perhaps even with the same characters to sideline my novel. I find that time away is usually the only thing that works for me if I need to reassess some part but I’ll try some of your other tips

  2. Thanks for your kind words. I’ve only recently thought about using the file as a basis for short stories, especially when the material relates to backstory. I also agree about needing that time away – I know I’m learning a great deal about patience on this writing journey.

  3. I don’t think we, writers, are the best judges of our own work: maybe our “darlings” ARE the best pieces in our writing and we shouldn’t “kill” them just because they are our favourite parts in our WIP. I know that I have a couple of lines in my WIP that I really love, and my beta readers have all mentioned those as their favourite ones as well. But I know what you mean, these darlings have to fit in the novel.

  4. Yes I totally agree – I’d say most of it is good to stay in the text. I certainly wouldn’t cut just because it’s a favourite – where would our writerly joy come from? Especially if the beta readers are giving the thumbs up too. There is a real difference between feeling pleased a piece went well and getting precious about something (deep down) you know isn’t working in the big scheme of the story.

  5. As I have been writing, I have tried to ignore the words/language in favor of the story and the characters. By this I mean that I don’t try to write phenomenal prose that will be recited by future generations of English majors, I simply try to write stories. When I go back through, I make sure the language is not awkward (and I have other folks read it with me or for me looking for this as well), but I focus primarily on getting the story out there. If I write my story and at the end of the scene/chapter I leave you going “I really don’t want to put this down, I want to know what happens next!” then I think I have succeeded. That means that I just don’t want my prose to be a barrier.

    I compare this to eating. I have some friends who are exceptionally picky eaters (pickier than my kids). They will only meet food that meets specific and sometimes crazy criteria (one friend will eat nothing with sour cream or cream cheese because he thinks they are “icky”, but he loves cheesecake made with cream cheese and a sour cream topping – NUTS!). I have other friends who take the philosophy “Food is fuel.” While I think that most people are a little picky about their eating in some way or another, I think the vast majority of people will eat almost anything so long as it does not taste awful (hence the overwhelming number of mediocre chain restaurants in our country). The language we use in storytelling is the same – there are some literary snobs who will not enjoy anything you write unless it follows some arcane and archaic set of rules, but the vast majority of folks will consume your writing ravenously as fuel for a good story so long as the language is not so bad as to get in the way.

    That’s my two cents.

    1. I agree – it really is a case of when the language gets in the way. For me it tends to happen when I’m not connecting to the scene I’m writing. The above piece about Josiah came when I was supposed to be writing something else. I couldn’t quite get my head around that scene so ended up spending time getting a feel for Josiah before I knuckled down and wrote the scene I needed to. It was probably a throat clearing exercise, but I was a little bit too attached to it.

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