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Writing Advice about Productivity, Characters, and Story #254.675

March 26, 2019


“The advice to 'kill your darlings' has been attributed to various authors across the various galaxies . . . and Mister Heist hated them all. Why teach young writers to edit out whatever it is they feel most passionate about? Better to kill everything in their writing they DON'T love as much. Until only the darlings remain.”

― Brian K. Vaughan, Saga, Vol. 3


Setting a Goal Doesn’t Have to Be a Word Count or a Time Frame


It can be a sentence goal, or even a goal to write a paragraph or full scene, no matter the word count or page length. This is incredibly subjective, but this part is mostly just permission to let you know you don’t have to be beholden to a word count. 2,000 words is progress, but so is 200 or 20.


I tend to aim for writing to the next 1,000. So, if I start off with 18,235 words for the day, I aim to get to 19,000. If I have 19,993 words at the start, I aim to get to 20,000. I often go over and feel accomplished. With each 1,000 I hit, even if I just wrote seven words, I feel more energized and motivated.


It’s Okay to Go Back Over What You’ve Already Written


As usual, this comes with a caveat. If you feel like you always get stuck fixing a certain part of your story and not proceeding, maybe this doesn’t apply to you, and that’s okay. Personally, I always go back at least a scene when I start writing. This is because if I didn’t, especially if it’s been awhile since I wrote the last part, I would be so terribly lost and the continuity would suffer.


While I am all about progress, I do think there is a balance between incomprehensible word vomit and perfection. Yes, indeed, a first draft is always the worst—or shittiest—draft, but there are ways to make it more coherent and make rewrites slightly less painful. If you easily forget what happened in the prior scene, scenes can transition badly or become disjointed.


Know What Your Characters Want and What Gets in the Way (AKA, Know the Story Goshdangit!!!)


This is the most important advice, at least for me. As nebulous as it sounds (“know” how?), I will try to explain it in detail. All my life, I’ve read writing advice, but the one person whose advice resonates with me above everyone else is Lisa Cron. She basically saved my writing career when I realized most of my stories had no momentum or stakes and were essentially tied-together vignettes.


“Story” is often used interchangeably with plot. It’s not. The story is not just things that happen. Characters + Plot = Story. Or character wants and needs + Challenges that keep them from what they want or change their perspectives of themselves, the world, and others = Story. I know there are metaphors to a draft being a sandbox and that you should just write and not care if it’s bad. To an extent, I agree that one should not be hindered by perfectionism. However, I have never been good at free writing, and I also believe there are ways to make a first draft not exactly the best thing ever (or even good), but less painful to revise and rewrite.


Structure—I do hate that word—is a huge part of this.


I think of it this way: what can the character choose between, or what are their possible endings? I’ll use an example of a story I completed, Rabbit Heart. Rabbit Heart did have a conflict, but it was not realized in how I structured the scenes. The organization was random and nothing built or led to anything else. Girl is adopted by cannibalistic serial killers, here’s some bonding, death, family fun, more death, and eventually it ends. I realized there was a fundamental issue with the story—the characters were fun, and the scenes did work, but there was no culmination.


At the time, I had to shelve the project because I didn’t know how to fix it. I had to write two novels that actually functioned before I went back to it—and when I did, I had a working draft in two months.


Here is what I did to eventually learn how to organize the story: I thought of an ultimatum and the two things the character wants or the only two obvious paths available, but they’re at odds, contradictory, and can never be joined. This forces a choice and, thus, change.


Rachel wants a) a loving family after a life of loss and abandonment, but then she must accept the murders and lose her humanity or b) she must protect her parents’ potential victims, but lose her family and be alone again. Because this is a horror novel, I consider these to be tied to Rachel’s fears. No option is ideal or obvious. One is more morally right, but involves great loss and trauma on Rachel’s part, and the other is more emotionally fulfilling but risks irreparably damaging the character.


By figuring this out, I could trim the fat and structure the new (and seventeenth!) draft around this conflict. This means every other superfluous detail went to the wayside, some characters got cut, and I could focus on building each seen entirely around Rachel’s struggle, her story. Ultimately, I was able to save the novel because of this.


Killing Your Darlings isn’t Always the Best Idea


I have some issues with kill your darlings as a common mantra. I have some major issues. A lot of it has to do with, on a technical level, the sexist decrying of “feminine writing” by this Edwardian dude which has unfortunately slipped into what modern writers define as “good” (blunt, short, non-sentimental, Hemingway-esque) and “bad” (florid, emotional, “purple prose”) writing.


However, here I am going to focus on the narrative—where “kill your darlings” can apply to many facets of the writing process, from a well-loved sentence that may not contribute to the overall story or a character. That’s not to say a writer should keep everything in. All scenes and interactions should, unless you’re going experimental, build and intensify the conflict. I’ve noticed some narratives, even well-loved ones, go too far with being ruthless.


When I read a story where everyone can die, if it’s pulled off well, there’s tension throughout. Still, no matter how much I love the story, there’s a risk to becoming jaded. Eventually, I lose interests where I know growing attached to a character doesn’t matter when that character may go at any time; the writers views them as expendable and doesn’t care or seem invested, so why should I be?


This is especially bad when after the character dies, there feels as if there are no consequences beyond them actually dying. The death doesn’t matter because there is no ripple effect. Some characters may grieve, but there is no irrevocable change. Some may point to A Song of Ice and Fire for this trend in storytelling, but the deaths of Ned, Robb, and Catelyn do create massive changes in the story. On a narrative level, these deaths are not gratuitous but a culmination of prior events.


There are massive implications to these sudden executions, one breaking a standard guest tradition and resulting in the deaths of multiple people—which isolates House Frey and incentivizes other houses to rally against them and the Lannisters even more. It doesn’t feel like these characters were tossed to the, er, wolves just to be gritty and shocking. There’s honestly only so much author sadism that can be effective before characters just feel like pawns to earn a “gotcha!”


It’s like the literary version of the jumpscare. Sure, in the moment, I’m stunned, but after I tend to be dissatisfied and vaguely annoyed.




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