Since retiring from teaching full-time, I've been an adjunct instructor at our local community college. I love teaching there - especially at the satellite campuses where the students are (usually) non-traditional in their ages. What's especially exciting is that the college is instituting the Freshman Year Seminar - a class students take either their first or second semester that will help them transition to the more rigorous requirements of higher education. I am honored that I was asked to design and teach one of those seminars.
Each seminar has a different focus. The science seminars, for example, might be based on some of the more controversial aspects of science research or centered on science in today's media. I'm in the Humanities, so our topics/issues can be quite broad. I've chosen "The Memoir as Self-discovery" as the title to mine.
What does that mean? It means I've been reading a lot of memoirs lately! While the students will spend a great deal of time writing their own (topics such as "How I learn best" and "How I got that scar"), they will also read others' memoirs so we can discuss style, form, and content.
To that end, I finally read Stephen King's On Writing. I know, I know - it's taken me long enough. I've only read a few of his books because I don't do well with horror or suspense. Gives me oggeta (I have no idea how to spell that Italian word and neither does the spellchecker). I've enjoyed the few pieces I have read (The Green Mile, Eyes of the Dragon) and now I can add On Writing to the list. He's blunt, concise, and pretty much right on track.
I particularly enjoyed the section on killing your darlings.
In fact, that's twice in two weeks that phrase has popped up - once in class discussion of literature and then again in King's book. In class, I spoke of how hard it can be - and how necessary. It isn't easy, they are, after all, your darlings. You created that character, that scene, that sentence. It is a part of you. It may be the most beautiful piece of writing you've ever created. If it doesn't serve the story, however, it must die.
In class I spoke of a description I'd included in the first few pages of a VERY long fantasy novel (that will probably never leave my computer. This was an early novel that holds just about every mistake a beginning novelist can make). At a workshop, I had the opportunity to read the first three pages to a group where a well-known author of fantasy would give a quick critique of our work. When I finished reading, she really honed in on the description of the flower, praising the imagery and phrasing. She then said, "I know that this flower will be very important later in the story because you spent so much time creating that beautiful image."
I thanked her for her critique, all the while cringing inside because I knew what she did not: that flower? Was just a flower. Nothing more. It never came back. It wasn't important. The protagonist bent down to smell it just because I needed to give him an action to do. Period.
But it had led at least one reader down an erroneous path. And if it could lead one...
I cut it.
Hard as it was to kill something praised as "beautiful imagery" with "excellent phrasing" - I cut it.
And I just did it again.
A different fantasy - the One of My Heart that is the Work of My Life - and I just cut an entire scene that I loved. Why? Because it didn't work. Oh, it was well-written and moved the plot forward, but I can move it forward more quickly and with better character development if I go a different route. The path has moved, in other words, and that scene is on a different branch. Sigh.
I do have to offer a disclaimer, though. Killing my darlings is never easy for me. To counteract the pain, I have a file I label "Extras" for each and every one of my stories. Not kidding. Every novel I have published? Has a file on my computer that contains writing that didn't make it into the final edit.
Why? Because every time I kill a darling, I think, "Well, I might go back and need it" or "I'll just use this later."
Want to know how many times I've put something back in after it's in the "Extras" file?
Nada, not happening, never.
And yet, I keep doing it. Did it today when I put that entire chapter into the file in case I change my mind.
I wonder if Stephen King keeps all his dead darlings?
Oooh...I think there might be a story there - about a writer haunted by his dead darlings...
(edited to fix some typos)