Murder Your Darlings

February 4, 2021

As the sky darkened the ocean’s surface began to exhibit a strange glow. Patches of otherwordly light shimmered and danced. Finn had studied this. Bioluminescence, from squid, crustaceans, and plankton. Generated by a light-emitting molecule called luciferin, typically for purposes of camouflage, distraction, and misdirection.

Sea life whispering, We’re not here. You don’t see us.

Finn sat back down and began another sketch.

Thus began a scene in an early chapter of Steel Fear, my thriller (coming out in July). Finn, our cryptic, troubled hero, senses there’s something deeply wrong on this aircraft carrier on which he’s been forced by command to hitch a ride home. But he doesn’t know what.

I loved this scene; the whole thing entranced me. Brandon (my former Navy SEAL coauthor) had mentioned seeing the eerie glow of bioluminescence in the ocean, and I thought that sounded promising.

I looked it up. Fell in love with the alien weirdness of it.

And that molecule! Luciferin. Wow. I loved that some scientist actually named this biochemical after Lucifer, the fallen angel who is both angel and demon—the name Lucifer meaning “bearer of light.” How ambiguous. How devious.

How deliciously foreboding.

So I planted this scene early on and then echoed it at the very end of Part I, when a murder has been committed but no one really knows it yet. (Except the reader and the killer, of course.) Here is how the very last scene of Part I ended:

In the dead of night, the USS Abraham Lincoln emerged from the eastern mouth of the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman and from there out to sea. Wrapped in his standard-issue blue wool blanket on the steel-webbed catwalk deck, Finn slept.

On the flight deck men in colored jerseys moved around busily, executing the machinery of their war dance, hurling and catching the great bombing machines in endless twenty-five-second cycles.

Far below, hidden deep in chambers most of the crew never saw, nuclear goblins ate away at the radioactive core, uranium atoms careening into each other, the crash! of their collision followed nanoseconds later by a whoosh! as they split apart and released their explosive force. If one were to shrink oneself down to the scale of an atom, one might observe that it very much resembled the contained chaos happening on the flight deck overhead as planes whooshed into the black sky and crashed back down.

Along Shaft Alley the twin turbines spun without cease, magic spindles in a dark fairy tale, sending their kinetic energy darting over steam pipes and electrical wires throughout the ship’s fifty-plus acres of workspace. At the stern, deep down beneath the fantail, the four great brass propellers churned the black water as the beast sliced its way through the ocean. A sea monster. A kraken.

Around the ship bioluminescence danced in the water, whispering its luciferous messages.

Camouflage! Distraction! Misdirection!

I just loved this passage. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Loved the imagery of the silent radioactive microcosm mirroring the bedlam of the flight deck macrocosm, loved the Jaws-like image of the great ship plowing mercilessly through the deep, loved the haunting “luciferous” messages telegraphing mayhem to come.

I thought it was one of the strongest passages in the book.

And if you pick up a copy when it comes out this July, you won’t find it. Because it isn’t there.

I deleted it.

It was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a prolific British novelist best known for editing The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250–1900, who first penned a three-word phrase that has been quoted by novelists and essayists and writing teachers for generations. Here’s what Sir Arthur had to say:

If you here 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.”

There it is — that cruel wisdom, that three-word mantra that strikes terror in the hearts of writers everywhere.

Murder your darlings.

“But why?” you’re bound to wonder. “If you love it that much, it must be at least pretty good, right? And probably verygood. And if it’s some of your best stuff, then why would you want to, um, murder it?”

Because sometimes what you think is your best idea is actually getting in the way. It may be good, even (as Sir Arthur puts it) “exceptionally fine writing.” But it’s blocking the story’s path.

It’s okay to fall in love with your own writing. It’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing: you should love the stuff you write. (Hey, if you don’t, nobody else will either.)

But you have to fall in love with the story more.

The writing has to serve the story—never the other way around.

And this passage, evocative as it was, poetic even, made our story grind to a halt.

This was a hard lesson to learn. When I finished the first draft of Steel Fear it weighed in at 152,000 words. When I handed it in, our agent didn’t even read it. “It’s way too long,” she said. “I won’t be able to get anyone in New York to even crack the first page.”

I didn’t see how the book could survive the kinds of drastic cuts she was talking about. I didn’t see how it could survive without that passage about luciferin and the glowing plankton!

But then, sometimes the things we think we can’t live with … turn out to be not so important after all.

And I knew she was right.

So I hired a story consultant, the brilliant Eve Seymour, who helped me identify the story’s weaknesses and bloat and compress it to 129,000 words. Then our agent read it (“Really, really good—but still far too long”), and she helped me compress it further, to 120,000 words, and then further, until it finally tipped the scales at 103,00 words—barely two thirds it original size.

A lot of what went was pure fat: unnecessary repetition, wordiness, excessive description, backstory that wasn’t important, and so on. But there were whole passages, even whole chapters (even whole characters!) I dearly loved yet which ended up on the editing floor.

And with each whack! of the knife, the book got better. Tighter, leaner, more focused, more compelling. More riveting.

By the time our publisher bought it and started readying it for production it was already generating what they call “buzz” in Hollywood for a possible TV series.

Will the book be a hit when it comes out? Will the TV series really happen? Nobody knows. But this I know, and know for sure: If we hadn’t gone through all that rewriting, nobody would have been interested, not in New York and not in Hollywood. It would still be sitting in a drawer somewhere.

Writing made the story. Rewriting turned it into the story it was meant to be.

And here’s the best part.

A few years ago, when I was working on a book with Brandon called Mastering Fear (not a novel, a how-to), there was a passage I really, really loved, about the perils of diving deep down underneath a battleship, the possibility of getting sucked into a ballast pump and turned into fish food. There was this (I thought) really cool philosophical insight that grew out of that.

But it didn’t quite fit where I had it. I moved it around, from spot to spot. There wasn’t anywhere it fit. It was a darling—and I finally had to pull it out altogether.

But I hung onto to it in a file on my laptop. And you’ll never guess where it suddenly fit.

In the very last scene of Part I. Right in the spot where I’d taken out the glowing plankton.

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “When God closes a door, He opens a window.” In this case, it was a porthole.

And who knows.

Perhaps our luciferous plankton will turn up in some other book when we least expect it.

7 Comments

  1. ADRIAN MANN

    “Man plans — God laughs”. Guess there’s not a whole lot we can do about that. But let’s just hope He keeps opening those windows!

    Reply
    • John David Mann

      Speriamo!

      Reply
  2. Victoria Ichizli-Bartels

    Wow, what a story about “killing one’s darlings”! And the happy ending of finding the perfect place for a previously “killed one.” 😀
    I loved it! So memorable.
    Thank you for sharing it, John!

    Reply
  3. John David Mann

    : – ) thanks, Victoria!

    Reply
  4. Ruth A Anderson

    Thanks for this, John! I’ll try to shift myself into the murderous frame of mind. 🙂

    Reply
    • John David Mann

      I just finished my ebook on writing (details forthcoming, probably a few weeks) — and there’s a LOT of material in there on topics like this! With examples. Can’t wait to get it out and available.

      Reply
  5. John David Mann

    My writer friend James Justice popped me an email reply, quoting from the blog “My Edinburg Press” (www.myedinburghpress.com):

    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.”

    Yep. Smug glee. That nails it precisely. ; – )

    Reply

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