Monday, November 29, 2010

Separating the darlings from the voice

I made some decisions in my writing this week. They had to do with sentences that have either struck me or my critique group members as being too much.

Kill those darlings.


Don't get rid of the very distinctiveness that is your voice.

How do I make such decisions?

By following my gut, that's how.

I ended up keeping one of the sentences and deleting a few others. The one that I kept occupies an important position. It is the second sentence of the opening chapter. To me, its over-the-top sentiment sets the tone for the protagonist. It tells us not only about the character of this 12-year old girl, but also the things that matter to her.

The ones that I took out fall into the category of being "too clever by half." No matter how much I try to convince myself of things that I don't really buy, there is always that honest, stable part of me that will call b.s. every time. Learning to pay attention and recognize that call has been one of the most valuable things I have learned over the last few years of writing.

Who knows. Maybe my deleted darlings should see the light of day, and the sentence I've kept will turn away readers. But until I find a more fool-proof way of making these decisions, my gut is all I got.

What about you/ Does your gut call the shots as well? And how long does it call before your hear?


C. N. Nevets said...

I think the key is becoming confident enough to own your voice so that you can make that decision in a calm, rational way, without an emotional or defensive impulse getting in the way.

When a writer is able to say, "No, that stays, because it's important for the voice," with the same dispassion as discussing grammar or syntax, then I feel that writer is mature enough in his or her style and development to make that call.

I'm not sure if it's gut, instinct, learned skill, or what, but it's just something you learn to recognize and understand as easily as anything else in the writing.

When a writer still feels emotional about it, still feels some defensive lashing out, a suggestion of perhaps too much personal investment -- that's when the decision is harder. Ultimately, it can only be your gut that makes the call, but hopefully after giving honest consideration to the suggestion first.

Yat-Yee said...

I agree. Developing confidence is what will help.

I am mulling over your assertion that we can view these decisions with the same dispassion as we deal with grammar and syntax because that implies there is an objective rightness about the choices.

And do you think that how a writer feels about their writing, specifically how calmly and non-emotionally, has quite a lot to do with the writer's personality? I am calm and logical about many things, even in the decisions I make in artistic pursuits, such as what tempo I would play a piece and the type of touch and articulation, or how much rubato I will employ at different parts of the piece, but in the end, I am also very emotionally invested.

C. N. Nevets said...


The nice thing about something you create is that you are in control of the objective rightness. Coming to grips with all that means has been very liberating and empowering for me.

I do think there's a lot of variation in your emotional investment in your writing. I don't think you need to be absolutely dispassionate about those choices - but rather as dispassionate as you are about the other elements of your writing.

For many people, that will still be pretty passionate, because they invested in the periods and commans, the verb agreement, the paragraph length, the way they have chosen to number their chapters.

When you regard your voice and your darlings with the same dispassion (and same passion) as those elements, I think you're in a really good place.

Yat-Yee said...

"The nice thing about something you create is that you are in control of the objective rightness."

I view this type of rightness as more of what I think is right for the story, and don't consider it objective. I know that even with grammar there can be arguments for what is "right" but for the most part, something like grammar is indisputable,, there is an objective right or wrong: the tense has to agree with the verb. But a writing decision that is "right" for a particular situation that is up to me, the author, may or may not jive with what is "right" with the reader.

I am not vehement about punctuation or any of the other things you mentioned. I do, however, care very much that the sentences I create brings across what's in my imagination to the page and hopefully to the psyche of my readers. Which is why I cannot say within my creation, I create the objective rightness. Yes, I have the final say on what I choose and I am probably confident it's the right thing, but how right it is remains to be seen.

I do hear what you're saying though, that when we can approach our writing decision in a calm manner, we are in a good position.

MG Higgins said...

I enjoyed your post and the following conversation. For me, confidence makes a big difference--the more I write, the more I feel I can trust my gut instincts. Distance also helps. There's nothing like six months to a year away from my manuscript to point out BS that I used to think was poetry.

Irene Latham said...

I am emotionally attached to everything I write, so I tend to be very protective of it in terms of allowing others to read when I am in the throes of creation. It's like I have to allow the voice to ferment before I can discover the darlings or the ones that require removal? Also, I can't call them "darlings." I use "stumbling blocks." For some reason just the change in terminology helps me let stuff go.

beth said...

I think you nailed it--you've got to just follow your gut.

I heard a radio program once where the speaker was talking about how he was working with an editor. The opening of the piece was brilliant--but not relevant. The writer lamented cutting it, but the editor said, "No one will know it's missing but you." The point being: no matter how good it is, people won't miss it if they've never seen it, and they shouldn't see it (even if it's beautifully written) if it doesn't serve the story.

Lydia Kang said...

What I used to call my gut is now a more mature writerly instinct. I used to think, "this isn't right, but I don't know why." And now I'm better at seeing what works, doesn't, and why. all started in the gut!

Solvang Sherrie said...

I always follow my gut, with a bit of input from my brain :)