Writing Problems: On Killing Your Darlings

First, though, a couple of updates:

  1. First, I’m feeling a little better than I did yesterday, in part because I finally slept last night (for thirteen hours, in fact) and in part because B. and I went to an evening ballet class.
  2. Second, I started writing up class notes, but haven’t finished them, so I may or may not get around to posting them. It’s funny — long ago, when this was mostly a bike blog, I used to feel intense misgivings about going off-piste like that. I suppose it was, in reality, mostly because I was still running from my own mental illness and from my own past. That’s an interesting thing to think about.

Okay, so: on to writing.

There’s a certain incantation well-known to writers, central to the craft of writing, attributed to everyone under the sun (though apparently it originated with Arthur Quiller-Couch), and apparently the title of a movie that I’ve never seen: “Kill your darlings.”

I’m not going to try to explain what it means. Other people have done that fast better than I could right now, and it seems likely that some of them are out there on the innertubes somewhere. (Google amongst yourselves; I’m feeling a little verklempt.)

Instead, I’m going to kvetch about the difficulty I’m having with it right now.

Back in November, I made a huge foray into the complicated waters of Strangers In The Land — and then I got stuck.

The work started to feel unwieldy, like an oversized chainsaw, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Just as it’s a good idea, when a chainsaw feels unwieldy, to perhaps put it down for a while, it can be good to walk away from a piece of fiction for a time when it gets really, really impassible.

This is one of the reasons I’m working on more than one project most of the time — at the moment, Strangers, which has proven to be much, much harder to write than I imagined, and a fantasy trilogy, which has proven to be much, much easier than I imagined even though it involves a very long story arc and a whole lot of world-building and mythopoetic creativity and so forth*.

*To be honest, I think those things make it easier, since they feel like a game — it’s all a giant game of make-believe set in a world that I have come to love intimately and tenderly even as I continue to do terrible things to it and its inhabitants. The biggest challenge is just figuring out what to include in the final work and what to leave on the cutting room floor.

The fantasy work, which bears the sad overall working title of The Tales of Kirnan, though the individual elements have less-awful ones (Calderon, A Song In Time Of War, A Far Green Country), is easy to tell because, for all the complexity of its setting, it’s a fairly simple story about a war.

For the most part, it hews (intentionally) to the conventions of the genre: indeed, it evolved out of a kind of joking attempt to put my love of really complex, layered stories aside and write a simple good-versus-evil, swords-and-sorcery romp. It has grown since then (apparently, I can’t keep myself from badding up at least some of my good guys or exploring the motivations of my bad guys at least a bit), but it’s still reasonably straightforward, all things considered.

Strangers, meanwhile, is not. It’s set in the real world, which is messy, and involves characters with more or less ordinary problems, which are also messy.

That in and of itself perhaps isn’t a huge challenge. I mean, I just described every work of realistic fiction ever, yes?

The problem is figuring out how to tell the story, which cuts, in some ways, very close to the bone.

And this is where killing my darlings comes in.

I love Phineas (Narrator Number 2 in this tangled skein of words). I love writing as Phineas, probably because in many ways Phineas — an effusive, restless dancer; wildly impractical; essentially romantic — is a lot like the parts of me I like best. I love his voice and his energy — and yet, the more I’ve tried to work my way out of this Gordian Knot of my own creation, the more I’ve come to feel like I can’t use him as a narrator to tell this story.

He is critical to the story itself — the story is, in part, his story — but trying to tell it in his voice isn’t working. Increasingly, it seems like the answer is to cut the knot: return to my original approach, in which Toby — far more sober and uncertain — tells the story for both of them.

This is hard.

~

First, as I said, I love writing as Phineas. It is often effortless, and an unalloyed pleasure — but characters have lives of their own, and Phineas refuses to approach the darkness at the heart of his own story. When I try to take him there, the wellspring of his voice runs dry.

For a while, I saw that as a failure of craft; since then, I’ve realized it’s not. It’s a central part of his character. He has spent nearly half his life doing everything in his power to avoid thinking about What Happened, and while he’s arguably the more successful of the two main characters in the world’s narrow sense, he’s also the more troubled, even though I didn’t want him to be**.

**I really wanted to shake up that convention, because in some ways it’s all too much like a romance novel — this story too easily could turn into “beautiful, feminine, troubled ballet dancer is rescued from his demons by ordinary, conventionally-masculine, brooding Knight in Flannel Trousers.” Then again, that’s very nearly the story of my own life, and besides, the rescuing is mutual.

I suppose that, because he’s in some ways a transcription of myself, I wanted him to be unbroken, resilient, in a way that I haven’t been.

Maybe it’s more honest to write him as he apparently is; as he has created himself: resilient in so many senses of the word, strong in so many senses, but ultimately brittle and fragile in critical ways and rushing headlong towards a crash.

~

Second, excising Phineas as a narrator means leaving some of the best writing I’ve done in years on the cutting-room floor.

That’s hard. People who don’t write think writing is easy, but good writing is hard. Good writing forces us to ruthlessly destroy things of great beauty when they don’t ultimately serve the purpose of the work. Forget the moon — the pen’s a harsh mistress.

I effing love the passages where Phineas rambles about dancing; I love his exchanges with the irrepressible and abrasive Antonio Garibaldi (who reminds him, at one point, that, “…There’s more than one way to work on your turnout.”). I kind of love how unaware he sometimes is of his own vulnerability: but that’s part of what makes him so freaking hard to write, when it comes down to brass tacks. He is unaware of his own vulnerability because he’s willfully blind to it, which means I can’t get his voice around the hard parts.

If I can’t make him do that, he can’t narrate, no matter how much he wants to talk about Company Class or the dynamics of I Travesti or anything else. If I was a better writer, I might be able to do it: to somehow justify the lacuna that must inevitably surround that revelation; to let Toby enter and pass through that purifying fire before Phineas recounts his end in things.

I don’t think I’m up to that task yet, though. Writing this kind of novel is hard, y’all.

Dropping Phineas’ narration also means losing almost half the content of the novel as it stands and relying on a narrator who is more consistent but also, frankly, not very exciting. Good narrators, of course, don’t have to be exciting — in fact, sometimes the best narrators are those who are more or less observers in their own stories … something that Toby certainly is at first.

It’s just harder to write an interesting story about a boring guy; about someone whose life is so neatly circumscribed. Phineas becomes a catalyst in Toby’s carefully-constructed world of placid certainty, but anyone who has watched a chemical reaction knows that the part before you add the catalyst can be pretty boring.

Phineas is a character whose life is full of tangible things happening; Toby’s life is far more internal. Generally, Phineas makes things happen, while things happen to Toby (a dilemma that is reflected in their ways of dealing with the same trauma: Phineas runs — a strategy reflected even in his career with a dance company that spends much of its time, more than half of every year, on tour — while Toby stands still; Phineas uses all his power never to think of it while Toby ponders it endlessly, but can’t seem to work it out).

In the past, I haven’t often found this hard to do — heck, I’ve all but written out the original main character of Kirnan because he was, frankly, kind of a boring one-dimensional goody-goody — but this time I’m really struggling with it.

Which, I suppose, is probably evidence in favor of the decision. I love Phineas too much and stand too close to him to really use him well as a narrator. He can’t tell his own story in his own voice. Not yet.

So there you have it. Phineas (as a narrator) must die so that Phineas (as a character) can live. Feh.

Anyway, that’s it for now. Having made this decision, I’m starting to see my way clear plot-wise, so I guess I’ll go strike while the iron is hot.

À bientôt, mes amis.

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About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Getting along pretty well with bipolar disorder. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2016/01/26, in artish, Strangers In The Land, work, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Yeah, it’s tough (not to mention kinda narcissistic) to write about how you see yourself. You can always do a self-caricature (easier if you think about it as writing about who you were rather than who you are) but trying to do justice to your own self-image is always going to run into not only your limitations as a writer and self-analyst but the limitations of the written word itself.

    Genre is much easier. It’s a given that it’s kinda two-dimensional – especially the characterisations – and that frees you up to focus on what it is you’re trying to achieve rather than feeling you have to do justice to the ‘real people’ you’re writing about.

    The irony is that partly sketched written characters are probably better than fully realised ones because they allow the readers to fill in the blanks according to their own needs and outlooks. And the author can let them go naked onto the page without fear they will be ‘misinterpreted’ or that s/he hasn’t done justice to them.

    You don’t need to kill your darlings. You need to set them free. Or at least release them to your readers.

  2. The other thing is that your darlings may well need to live, but in another work all of their own, or with a character you haven’t met yet. Rest your darlings, don’t kill them!!

  3. I have been contemplating Cabrogal’s lovely and sensible comment, here is, for a while, and Editor’s has added a dimension. I’ve been thinking about whether to leave Phineas-as-narrator on a back burner and return to him in another work, or maybe just trying to write Toby’s parts of Strangers, then come back and write Phineas’ parts if the story demands it.

    After much reflection, I’ve realized that the problem isn’t writing in Pinny’s voice — it’s doing so and and telling the story honestly. Phineas’ past involves Bad Things, and yet somehow I was trying to write Phinny as someone for whom the Bad Things came out of nowhere and had, since then, been completely unwrought almost; as someone who was really “over it,” basically.

    I can’t tell that story because that isn’t isn’t the right story; once I stop trying to make Phineas’ life Just Fine except for this shared episode in the past that haunts both my narrators (albeit in different ways), he speaks to me again.

    Keeping Phineas was always essential — he’s the fulcrum around which Toby’s narrative ultimately pivots — but it’s lovely to be able to keep writing in his voice, which is more playful, more direct, and (in some ways) more vivid than Toby’s, but which must ultimately pass through darker places than I wanted it to. I can let him speak; I can’t force him to be the perfectly-healed foil to Toby’s quiet-but-sustained dismay.

    I think some of this grew out of the problem of writing a character who who is in many ways so similar to me: on some level, perhaps I’ve been trying to use him to salve my past instead of to illuminate it; to try to stick plasters over some of the uglier parts.

    I didn’t realize that I was doing that, but I think I was, and I think a good piece of fiction has, first and foremost, to be honest.

    So it’s back into the fray with me, wrestling the kraken of fiction again, but better equipped.

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