One day there may be a writer who can produce flawless sentences that will only be compromised by revision. That hypothetical author (most likely, a robot) may write very quickly, or very slowly, but though they may pause they will never have to retrace their steps to question the choice of a word or its placement. They will never vacillate over whether the sky should be described as blue or azure or a cerulean expanse, or not described at all.
If this fantastical proposition inspires contradictory feelings in you, you are not alone. It is probably every writer’s dream to be able to transcribe thoughts and feelings into language that expresses them so accurately one is able to forget the gap. Getting it right first time is what we try to do. But as soon as I picture the chrome entity producing a constant stream of unimpeachable prose (and for some reason the robot is in a high stone tower) I imagine a horde of pitchfork-wielding peasantry enraged by a gift they see as unnatural. The tower falls; peasants cheer; the robot describes its demise.
This may, perhaps, tell us something about the way that fantasies, once achieved, may become intolerable. Or it may reflect the fact that for any serious writer the editing process is a fundamental part of writing. Finding the right words requires trial and error, reflection, patience, it stimulates (and maddens), but it’s a process from which you cannot help but learn. Yet the much-quoted adage, often ascribed to William Faulkner, that writers need to ‘kill their darlings’ captures what is most difficult about editing one’s own work, namely the sense of investment and emotional connection to marks on a page, or pixels on a screen you really need to clean. That these words should seem in any way beloved is because they are yours, you made them . You sat inside on a beautiful day while everyone else was strolling and reclining with their picnics and summer songs under a sky that was bottomless, benevolent, possibly empyrean. While they were laughing and kissing and drinking warm gin and tonic from cans you were investing time, effort and maybe pain in your six-hundred-word description of the old brass carriage clock on the mantelpiece of your hero’s childhood home, a clock that in your mind resembles the clock on the middle shelf of the bungalow you grew up in, a clock you never dared touch. The thought of changing this remarkable description makes you feel not just ill, but angry.
Faulkner’s advice had its origins in a lecture given by the English writer Arthur Quiller-Couch at Cambridge University in January 1914. In that context Quiller-Couch offered a crucial qualification:
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.
For me, the crucial part of this is not the exhortation to bloodshed, but the granting of permission. Only after one has meticulously described the walnut case of the clock, the precise gleam of the brass, the font of the numerals on the clock face, the timbre of its tick, its chime, can one accept that this detailed description wasn’t necessary at all. With this knowledge, murder becomes a mercy-killing, something to be celebrated rather than mourned. One may even find the same satisfaction in taking a life as one found in its creation. Both giving and taking life offer a simultaneous sense of release and control; both are the action of gods.
But to murder a six-hundred-word description of a clock is only a small killing. Quiller-Couch was talking about issues of style, which he gamely admitted to being a matter of individual taste, ‘literature being personal, and men various’, acknowledging that each ‘of us constructs his sentence differently’ . More problematic is the question of what to do with the family of darlings known as the short story, the population known as a novel. Because it is one thing to get a little blood on one’s hands by smothering single descriptions, or sections of flashback, and quite another to drive crowds towards a precipice. To put it bluntly — when should a writer give up? When does one tell the 5,000 words of a story, or the 80,000 words of a novel, that they are all going for a gentle walk along the high cliffs?
Alas, the obvious reason for doing so – that the work isn’t good – is rarely enough. The work produced by us non-robots is usually bad (or certainly not good) for a very long time before it becomes worth reading. And in a cruel irony the only way to make the work better is through many, many small killings. This notion of the greater good is what allows us to get rid of clocks and minor characters and the hilarious anecdote about a frog in someone’s pocket which we so wanted to include because it happened to our friend Jill. Yet all these small sacrifices, though they improve the work, paradoxically also make it harder to accept that our story or novel is generally misconceived, boring, tepid, told from the wrong perspective, or one of the many other terminal conditions it is very easy, and often delightful, to see in other people’s offspring. Once we accept one (or more) of these diagnoses for our actual, beloved work all the former, painful procedures seem pointless. No amount of intellectualising blunts the sense of failure.
And yet — it also very easy to give up. There is no surer way to escape the disillusionment and pain of an unsuccessful piece of work than starting something new, fresh, original and exciting you believe could be really great. So long as it is amazing, a noisy triumph, the cries from the foot of the cliff will be indistinguishable from the shriek of seabirds.
The completely unhelpful conclusion to be drawn from these different considerations can be summarised with the quasi-Mosaic injunction Thou Should (and Should Not) Kill. We should and should not give up. An obvious thing to do is to ask for other people’s opinions on your work, which is fine except that non-writers don’t know what they are talking about, and writer friends cannot be trusted. Luckily there exists an independent (though not impartial) arbiter that can provide a knife to cut through this knot, especially when you are at the start of your career. The verdicts of agents, editors and publishers, those brief, polite, regretful expressions that conclude with the hope that one will have better luck placing the work elsewhere (preferably a drawer, the bin, a hole on the moor), are an invaluable source of motive. Rejection is a shove in the back of a story, a firm push on the slope to the sea. There is, of course, still a second-tier of delusion to be overcome. Because all those gatekeepers are idiots. They have no taste. They didn’t read the submission properly. They only want something commercial and easy with a stupid plot and likeable characters and short sentences with minimal punctuation. And didn’t Catch-22 get rejected 21 times ?
This rejection of rejection can go on for a long time. But in the war between neuroses – the small one that wants to protect a particular piece of work and the brute that just wants the publication of something – the latter usually triumphs. You write more, you fail better; you publish. Your darlings blink in the light.
I wish this was the end of the killing. But success, even of a middling kind, brings with it new dilemmas. If enough of your stories get published, you may be offered a collection. If your novel does respectably, someone may ask if you have another. Let’s say you have been publishing stories for ten years, that you have fifteen or twenty published stories to choose from. Which ones do you include? The temptation is to think the most recent are likely to be the best — but you also have favourites. And perhaps a ten-year-old story that still reads well is more to be trusted than something with the glamour of novelty. And what about all those Unquiet stories (and novels) stirring beneath the rocks? As a writer becomes more successful they arguably need a tighter grasp of the knife, because those old stories and novels have such big, beautiful eyes. You worked so hard on them. They are not that bad. It is very rare for reviewers to mention the soil in the ears of a supposedly new creation.
So perhaps it is foolish to think our larger darlings can ever truly die. Killing is a fantasy. Even if you burn your manuscripts, delete the files, there are still old laptops, email backups, whatever dwells in the Cloud. They live on in you. Rather than thinking of cliff tops or sharp blades, it is perhaps better to lead your limping story (or drag it) up stone steps that circle, round and round, till you reach a thick wooden door. From that well-appointed chamber it will have an excellent view; and it will not lack company. Just before you lock the door: tell it you will visit.