Murdering my darlings...
Updated: Oct 8, 2022
I am finally at the final editing stage of a manuscript and am wincing at the suggestions of a literary consultant. There they are, couched timidly in the margin in Review mode, my prose crammed into tight little pens to be carted off to the abattoir.
'Surely not,' I mutter to myself. 'I've just read similar in one of Wilbur's works.'
It's 'over-writing' apparently; that stuff that slows the narrative, unnecessarily holds the reader's hand. Sob. It's the stuff I throughly enjoyed writing, the prose I felt good about.
The advice comes from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1916) in On the Art of Writing.
"If you require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings."
Here's an example from my manuscript Veldt Hunter. The protagonist, Harry Swift, is trying to bring himself to write the letter that would break off his engagement to a childhood sweetheart:
The pen hovered as his mind searched for the right words. Dear Mary were all he had managed. Mary Cartwright had been part of his life since the day they had met by the village pump. Swift had been licking his wounds, after a brawl in which he had been outnumbered by Will Knatchbull and two of his cronies. In the impoverished hamlets and villages of the North Downs, Swift’s illegitimacy was a social stigma below all others, and he had learned to use his fists to protect himself against the insult.
On this occasion, Swift had given as good as he got, bloodying Knatchbull’s nose, only to go down under the weight of numbers. He had staggered to the water pump with Knatchbull’s jeers ringing in his ears. Mary was on her way to the village bakery when she saw Swift splashing water on his face, washing away the scarlet rivulet running from his nostril. She offered him a clean handkerchief.
She was a yeoman farmer’s daughter of respectable Kentish stock, always turned out in freshly-ironed dresses and clean shoes. Until that moment, she had been just another village girl to be ignored or teased. But as she spoke soothingly, dabbing at his cut lip, her blonde hair danced, and her blue eyes ignited something inside him. Harry Swift was smitten. As time passed, their relationship went from bashful friends to teenage sweethearts.
For Swift, the teenage joy at holding hands and stealing kisses slowly turned to frustration. While his step-brother, Jack, returned home excited and bright-eyed from his skirmishes with the hemlines of the village girls, Mary remained steadfastly firm in her refusal to let Swift have anything more than a chaste peck on the lips. The unveiling of Mary Cartwright’s womanly delights was destined for her wedding night and no sooner.
Swift bore the frustrations with the stoicism of so many of his peers and continued to ‘walk out’ with her. The consolation was that she was the prettiest girl in the village. He would have to ‘wait until they married’ was Mary’s promise. Swift had never thought that far ahead, but Mary and her parents had. The respectability of having a vicar’s son in the family, even if he was a stepson, appealed to Mary’s mother, who turned a blind eye to the mystery of who might be Harry’s biological father.
But Mary’s vivacity had paled in the shadow of Jack’s death. Harry had to get away, away from the village and his beloved Downs. The army was his escape.