Make Em Laugh–Or Not

“In writing, you must kill your darlings.” ~William Faulkner

Many a writer has heard this bit of advice before I’m sure. For those of you who haven’t heard of this before the idea is that the scenes a writer loves most of all in their work, their “darlings” are usually the ones that need most urgently to be cut. Just because they are the author’s favorite part doesn’t mean that the section is actually important or necessary to the novel.

Tonight whilst I was plugging away at my latest WIP this seemed a particularly apt bit of advice to me. And, in this instance, almost a presentiment of things to come in my writing life.

Lemme a ‘splain–no, there is too much, lemme sum up: Right now I’m working on a short contemporary romance while I let revisions percolate in the back of my mind on another project. This contemporary romance is supposed to be a light, frothy bit of a romp. Fun. Wholesome, even. (I can so do wholesome! Totally!) So, since it is a fun contemporary I feel I have a certain bit of leeway to slide in the witty banter, the jokes, maybe even some of the absurd.

Tonight, though, as I was writing, my brain just started to riff on this Tarzan theme. Now, the Tarzan idea is a joke, but it was really intended to be just a one-off. A quick one-liner laugh and then bing, bang, boom and onto the next plot point. Instead, my writing muse decided my hero and heroine wanted to have a long, and very silly conversation with lots of Tarzan jokes. 244 words. Nearly a WHOLE PAGE of jokes about Tarzan. I let my brain get it out onto the screen but afterward I can’t help but look back over all that writing and think: What the hell, brain?!

See, this stuff is pure silly banter. It’s fluff. It’s froth. It doesn’t really further the plot or the romantic relationship. It is not carrying it’s weight, literarily speaking. It’s empty calories. It’s the chocolate donut of narrative writing.

But…but it amuses me. I love it. It’s my darling. My preciousss….

This is where I get into trouble. All writers have their particular breed of “darlings,” you see; those scenes or vignettes that don’t do anything for the narrative but that you, the writer, love so dearly that you just can’t bear to cut them out, even if they are weighing down your manuscript. My critique partner is rather fond of backstory, for example, and long intense descriptions of place that aren’t necessary for plot.

And as for me? What is my particular breed of “darlings”? The jokes. I hate to kill a joke. Some of my greatest regrets from editing my last two novels were when I had to leave a joke on the cutting room floor.

So, you see, that’s what got me so annoyed writing tonight because I’m looking to the future and predicting that these jokes, these newly born darlings of mine, are going to be cut like so many of their brethren before them have. These Tarzan jokes, too, will fall under the deathly scythe of my red-pen. Their days are numbered, and I know it, so why do I even bother writing them down at all?

Because that’s what writers do. (Or at least, what this writer does.) We just let our brain spew onto the blank page and hope a few pearls come out with all the doomed darlings that are going to end up in the deleted scenes folder. We write, and in the end all we can hope is that someone will want to read whatever the final product turns out to be…

Is it so wrong to hope, though, that maybe I’m wrong? that maybe this time one of my darlings will survive the transition from my brain to an editor’s desk? That maybe, just maybe, I could get a book published with a full page of Tarzan jokes?

Cheers,
E.D. Walker

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11 thoughts on “Make Em Laugh–Or Not

  1. riemcgaha says:

    Oh, so true. Lines I love are often the ones the editor leaves comments about or just draws that lethal red line through, cutting my heart out at the same time!

    “Lemme a ‘splain–no, there is too much, lemme sum up:” This is one of my favorite lines too. 🙂 The Princess Bride is one of my all time faves.

    Rie McGaha

  2. I loves my darlings. Don’t, I beg of you, tell me I must delete them.

    I first heard about killing the darlings in Stephen King’s book, On Writing. And it hit me hard. I have tried to be ruthless, but I know some have slipped through.

    So here’s a thought about your Tarzan jokes. Expand it a bit to include some backstory, characterization and a hint of conflict. See, there’s always a way to redeem the darlings.

  3. Roni Lynne says:

    First, E.D., I need to tell ya, I love your site! You’ve done a great job of setting it up!
    As to darlings…mine tend to be walk-on characters that I give waaay too much wordage in the first draft! I loooooove inviting everyone into my little party & giving them something to do (ya, like, hold a door…you get the picture).
    I’d love to hear some of your Tarzan jokes! I bet they’re a riot!
    Stay cool!

    ~Roni Lynne
    YA Adventures in the Paranormal…and Beyond!

  4. I think the secret to kiilling darlings is to not killthem completely. I have a cuttings file for every WIP and all kinds of stuff goes into it . I figue one of tehse days I may need that particular darling and it will be there.

  5. Shawn says:

    Every time I cut a scene I love, it goes into my scrap folder. I still visit my little darlings every once in awhile. Maybe they’ll make their way into another story. (I doubt it, but I can dream, right?)

  6. Hiya E.D.!

    I’ve lost 10k worth of darlings in one edit, so I feel your pain.

    One thing I’ve taken to doing, is reworking my jokes, or moments I envision and can’t let go of, into a scene that matters and won’t be going anywhere.

    Sometimes it will still find it’s way into the “cut” file, but the rest of the time…yay, it stays. lol

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    All my best,
    Allure Van Sanz

  7. Hi. Great post. In spite of the fact that you’re killing your precioussss I still laughed … because we’ve all been there. I have my file of deleted scenes- the most wonderful scenes in the world that somehow only I will ever read! (Ok,me an my critique partners!) Jordan http://www.evaprim.com

  8. Jess says:

    E.D.,

    Great post. I know what you mean. I’m furiously racing to finish the first draft of a ms that’s supposed to be 90K. But the rate of detours I’m taking it’s going to be over for the exact reason you named, little darlings. But since I won’t know which ones to cut or kill until I can read it straight through, I’m going on.

    Still, I save the ones that I have cut. Who knows some piece may end up in a scene in another story. 🙂

  9. Russ Hart says:

    My take on this is unless its obvious the section doesn’t fit (a page of Tarzan jokes might be bit much, but then I love Tarzan jokes ) then leave it in and let the editor tell you what needs to be cut (or added).

    My reasoning is we as writers are the absolute worst judges of our own work. I do not believe in rewriting, I believe in redrafting. These are very different things. Re-drafting means checking for obvious errors, spell checking and ensuring the manuscript format is right. Most top selling pros do three drafts (first draft, get the story on paper, 2nd draft, cycle through for obvious errors, 3rd draft, spell check) they do not re-write, tinker, or fuss over details until the manuscript is “perfect”. As I said we are all too often the worst judge of our work so we have no idea if its good or bad.

    In 1947 the late SF author Robert Heinlein created some rules that I try to follow:

    HEINLEIN’S RULES FOR WRITING
    —————————-

    1. You must write.
    2. You must finish what you write.
    3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order (and then only those you agree with).
    4. You must put the work on the market.
    5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold. (Note: self pub has changed this part a little)

    To follow these is VERY hard, because it means you have to trust your work and you must be in creative mode when you write as opposed to critical mode.

    You will note I said try. The problem I still struggle with, and you alluded to in your Tarzan jokes example, is the critical brain tries to invade and tell us something should be removed. If you listen you may just remove some of the best jokes.

    And we don’t want that. Let the editor suggest things and then take out what you agree with. Good editors are worth their weight in gold.

    Stay creative and have fun.

  10. Julianne says:

    Is that what Faulkner meant?? I always thought he meant don’t be afraid to kill your characters off. (which some authors take to absolute heart, you know). And I always tend to loathe doing that by the time I get a first draft close to finished and, you know, sometimes have to. Oh….. Thanks for clarifying.

  11. I’ve had scenes like that, too. You hope it furthers character, but in reality, it doesn’t go anywhere. I try to remember a rule. Every word should advance plot or illuminate character.

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