by Laura Anne Gilman
Well. This week in Practical Meerkat Land we had an earthquake, a hurricane (incoming) and a birthday. It’s been busy times around here….
But the writing still goes on, as it does. Though rain, snow, sleet and “what the hell, did the building just move?” the writer writes on…. and must juggle the moments of “I wrote that, that’s really good!” with the moments of “oh god I wrote that? That sucks.” And the urge is to keep the things that please us, and jettison the things that make us want to slit our wrists…. and then out of the darkness we may hear the dulcet tones of some long-ago writing professor intoning, “kill your darlings.”
Huh? What? I have to get rid of the things that make me cackle with delight, that prove to me, in the worst moments, that I really am as clever as Mummy told me? No Fair! And yet, hey, the quote originated with William Faulkner, so he had to know something, right?
(Actually, I believe that the full quote is “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings,” and it comes to us via Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who was a character in his own right.)
I actually hate that quote. Not because it’s untrue, but because it’s too easy.
Like most bits of “writing advice,” especially those repeated ad nauseum by writing courses and how-to books and People Who Know, I’ve found that it’s often more harmful than useful. That is we as writers spend so much time contemplating how to obey the rule, we forget what it’s actually telling us.
The same applies, in my experience, to ‘show don’t tell,” and “write what you know.” Useful bits of shorthand, but “Write what you know” doesn’t mean write less, but LEARN MORE, and every book needs a careful balance of show and tell, to keep the action moving. Strict obedience to the wording of rules runs the high risk of make a writer less effective in their craft
Rules are helpful, oh yes. They’re incredibly useful. But they’re tools, not masters. Rules should be learned and internalized, not so that you can break them (another bit of oft-touted advice) but so that they become so much a part of your writing muscle that you adapt your work around them as you write.
That writing muscle is part of what I affectionately call the lizard brain, and it’s not something that comes naturally, but develops over time and hard work. If you rely on the rules to guide you, you run the risk of stifling the development of that lizard brain, the good internal editor, the voice that says “yes, this works” or “no this doesn’t” and is painfully, brutally honest.
So no, please, do not go through your manuscript and slaughter every line that makes you gleeful with your own cleverness or skill because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Especially if its only crime is that it is, indeed, an exceptionally fine piece of craft. But DO look at each line and think “is this for me? For my readers? Or is it for the story?”
And if the Good Voice whispers, “The story is not served,” then bring out the knife.
Coming up in Week 35: “I can teach you everything except what’s essential”
Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy. Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future,” was published by Fairwood Press in June 2011. For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman) And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.