Cherish Your Darlings

two hands offering a flower with a black backgroundYou’re in your writing group, about to read aloud the best thing you’ve ever written. It’s brilliant, it’s poignant, and you’re bursting to share it. You take a deep breath and begin. At the end, you look up, awaiting praise. Your friends are staring at the floor.

“I didn’t totally understand that part,” one says. “I think you can tighten this,” says another. That one lady with the great insights who always gets your work says, “I liked it overall, but I think you can cut the part where …” and then she describes your moment of greatest brilliance. As something to discard.

We all know about darlings. They’re the parts you think are amazing that everyone else knows are anything but. We all know what you do with darlings. You kill them.

That’s right, of course. There’s no part of your book so good it should stay if it isn’t serving the whole. And, let’s be honest, often those “brilliant” bits are self-indulgent, over-written messes. (Though I once read advice that defined a “darling” as any passage the author especially liked. It went on to say that the first step in editing was to delete whichever parts you were most fond of. For the love of Bob and all that is holy, don’t do that.)

But—and here’s the controversial part—I think believing your readers over your instincts is wrong.

Oh, definitely get a writing group you can trust. When they say, “it’s not working,” believe them. Instincts aren’t born, they’re tempered with time. Fail often, and you’ll learn what works and doesn’t work. You’ll carry your writing group in your head and fix mistakes before your group even sees them. This is how you hone your instincts.

Once you’ve developed good instincts, you’ll still need that group. Sometimes you need a sanity check. Or you need somebody else’s take on an issue. Sometimes you’ve just got to hear how prose lands. You never stop needing that in some form or other.

But when your group says something doesn’t work, your next step is not dry your tears and rush off to delete it. (Or even relocate it to a clippings file, though Melissa Bloom has a great post on how to do that when the time comes.) The next step is to look at the work as a whole. Ask yourself, does this passage serve the larger purpose? Does it make the book better?

Often, it won’t. Your reader says, “That moment doesn’t work,” and you agree. Or you do some arguing and bargaining and painful soul-searching and eventually agree. It’s the wrong beat, or it’s too flowery, or it reiterates something your readers knew already. That’s when you kill it. (Or, you know. Clippings file.)

Sometimes, though, all your instincts insist the moment is vital to the story. It’s not just (allegedly) beautifully written, you need it to convey your meaning. Your readers tell you to cut it, and you can’t. You have no idea how you know, but you know it’s important.

So don’t kill it. Dig deeper. Why do your instincts and your readers disagree?

Maybe you introduced the moment poorly. Or you didn’t flesh it out enough. Maybe it’s something so obvious to you-you’re still finding the words for it. Sometimes the hardest ideas to explain are the true ones.

You may dig way, way down just to discover your readers were right. You have blindspots, and I guarantee you others see them more clearly than you do. When your readers say, “This part doesn’t work,” believe them.

But when your instincts say, “This part is vital,” believe them too. Because sometimes, against all precedent and logic and the feedback of your time-tested writing group, your instincts will insist a moment is right.

Good. Go clean the damned thing up until your readers say so too.

Photo Credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/p-ppCccUZiU