Master Insights: Stephen King

Though the thought might have been borrowed Arthur Quiller-Couch, Stephen King is famous for saying, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

While there is nothing to misinterpret (King employs the advanced literary technique called “repetition” here, kids) I often struggle with this recommendation the most out of any advice I’ve ever internalized.  Well… other than the tip I heard that said: “real writers don’t read advice,” which has forever confused me.

Just so that we’re on the same page, this recommendation applies to purple prose, flowery language, waxing poetic, whatever you want to call it.  Our darlings are those lines or, dare I say? even paragraphs of which we are immeasurably proud, because we believe they will eventually become pillars of literature.  It is these “pieces of exceptionally fine writing,” as Quiller-Couch calls them, that King so adamantly demands we murder.

I have to say that when I first heard this piece of advice, I misapplied it.  What King is saying is not to avoid writing darlings, but rather to remove them from the final product. This is important because I believe that breathing life into those “darlings” is one of the best ways a writer can improve his craft.  It is also a good reminder of our times and why we do what we do.  What we writers seem to oft forget is that the most beautiful sentences-those pillars of literature-are often very simple, whereas “darlings” tend to be overwrought.

All in all, I believe this to be good advice.  The one questions that I have, however, is if authors identify their most famous quotes as their “darlings,” and if so, what made them fit to save?

In closing, here’s one first-draft darling, which walked solemnly to the guillotine some two years ago.  I remember it sounding great when I wrote it, but a pillar of literature it is most definitely not:

“Memory is a tricky thing.  This I was reminded as I memorized the tunnels and their cavorting contortions, attempting to emblazon the spectrally-glowing cavern into the deepest parts of my mind, so that the path hither would stand out in fiery regard above the miasmic trivia I had collected over the years.”

I changed it to:

“Memory is a tricky thing, mostly because it rebels when you need it most.  Even as I committed the path hence to memory, details began to slip away.”

Feel free to share your darlings, too!


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Don’t steal my words.  They’re mine. Zachary Barnes 2016©

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