Monday, June 25, 2012

The Little Darlings

I was going to call this post "Kill the Little Darlings." It sounded oh so ghastly that I decided to drop the first part, but killing them is what this is about. Don't worry, I'm talking words, not people.

Years ago, someone told me that Somerset Maugham, the British novelist and playwright, had said, by way of advice to writers, "Murder the Little Darlings." I've referred to this quote many times but always with the caveat that I have not able to confirm the source or the exact wording. The only Maughamism I could find on writing, courtesy of, is this: "Habits in writing as in life are only useful if they are broken as soon as they cease to be advantageous." Well, I guess it's true but it doesn't have quite the shock value of the non-quote I've been attributing to him all these years.

Shock value is certainly the provenance of a contemporary American novelst, Stephen King who, I've just discovered, has admonished authors to "kill the little darlings." Who better than Mr. King for that? Some say that William Faulkner beat King to it by a few decades, that the iconic Southern writer has been quoted similarly. Who knows. What's more important than attribution right now is the murderous concept at hand.

The "little darlings" are those favored words, turns of phrase, even entire paragraphs or chapters that do not earn their keep, no matter how they may please the ear or eye. They might do wonders for a 64-page book of 4,000 words, but not for a 32-page 600-word picture book. They might stimulate the reader's intellect, which is fine but could be a problem if the intent at that moment is to make her laugh (or cry) -- or vice versa. They might sound good but just not quite fit or they might needlessly extend the text into the realm of verbosity when nothing else can be cut. There are myriad justifications for killing the little darlings, but kill you must.

This all came to mind recently in the editing of my book about what happens to the pumpkin after Halloween. My editor and publisher (and friend), Marissa Moss, committed homicide on my title. I had called it I Rot: The Fall and Rise of a Halloween Pumpkin. All authors realize that titles are tentative but I rather liked it. I thought the "I Rot" part (since the book is written the first person from the voices of the characters in the drama, starring the pumpkin itself) was catchy. And the "Fall and Rise" bit seemed a nice twist on the usual phrase by reversing it. No, I wasn't in love with it, but I was pretty satisfied. And then Marissa came along.

"I think we should call it Rotten Pumpkin," she declared.
"Rotten Pumpkin? That's all?" I said. "Do you mean we should just refer to it as the "rotten pumpkin" book?" I'd been doing that all along.
"No, the title. Rotten Pumpkin. That says it all, don't you think?"

Well, I hadn't... but maybe I could. Maybe I would. Maybe Rotten Pumpkin would jump off the shelf and grab the browser and say "READ ME!" in a way that my ten-word title would not. Maybe it would make a potential reader into a reader who wants to know why in the world a book would be called Rotten Pumpkin. "What kind of rotten book is that? I have to find out!" By contrast, my ten-word title probably doesn't have much jumping power. Maybe it just says, "Here's something for you to think about if you happen to be in the mood to think about it. Which might be tomorrow. Or the next day. Or maybe in time to write that report."

So I've been killing little darlings for the past few days. It's a hard job but someone's got to do it. And once I get through the mourning, it feels really good.

Happy summer everyone. My all your edits be satisfying, whether or not they are murderous.

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