It’s a well-known adage writers abide by: ‘kill your darlings.’ Find those self-indulgent bits of writing that make you feel good but don’t do anything for your story, and cut ’em out. The more we practice our craft, the better we get at recognizing and excising these darlings. Better, but not perfect.
Since I started planning The Thieves of Traska as part of a trilogy, I slated the setting of book two as the wilderness outside the city. It was one circumstance among a handful that I felt were the essential bones of the story. Every time I scrapped a draft, I went back to those bones and started again. Book two has yet to see a completed first draft.
One night, kept awake again by this problem, I decided to exercise my brain. What would the story look like with different bones? How might it begin? I started small, picking one bone to ignore. “What if I don’t make Claire leave the city?” I asked.
The punishment she received might be more like house arrest than temporary exile. The characters she would have been exiled with — who did nothing to earn punishment — were suddenly free to act. Best of all, I didn’t have to force my other Point of View Character into scenes he had no place in. He was suddenly free to do what he should for the story, instead of bearing the burden of witnessing every important event and conversation that takes place within the city.
Wow. That solved a lot of problems.
It also presented a couple of new ones. First, the only character with business outside the city was stranded in the city. Second, it jeopardized the main plot point that gave the second book its title: The Raiders of Vaskegon. How the heck could they be in the story if I don’t make Claire go to Vaskegon, meet the raiders there, and bring them back to Traska?
Wait. The raiders are coming from Vaskegon. It doesn’t matter if they receive a summons by Claire Messenger Service or a bald carrier pigeon. Whew. We’re back to one problem— oh, wait a minute. That stranded character is one of the raiders. If the raiders are coming to the city no matter what, then. . . that character doesn’t actually need to leave. Oh.
Damn. I just fixed every problem that stalled my progress. I guess that means I should get back to writing then.
And so died my darling idea of having half the story take place outside of the city: killed for the greater good of the story. God rest its soul, amen. There will be a buffet lunch served at two.
Killing your darlings is hard. Finding which darlings to kill is also hard. Sometimes you have to go back to the bones of your story outline and see if any of them aren’t actually holding the story up. If you try the story without one key element and it creates more problems than it solves, put it back and try taking out the next one. Sooner or later, you’ll know what to cut.