As part of my “training” to break into professional fiction writing, I routinely critique stories by other writers. (I do this both when asked and when I read, but that’s fodder for another post.) I recently critiqued a story in which the writer had included an anecdote from the main character’s past as back story. The anecdote was based on a personal experience of the writer, which made it very important to him. Yet, I couldn’t see the point of the anecdote in the story—it didn’t seem to advance the narrative arc, or develop the character or the setting, or provide any increased tension. I suggested he cut it. I could tell he was reluctant to do that.
I know exactly what he was going through. Often I have pieces of stories that become personal favorites—nice turns-of-phrase, scenes that have more significance to me than they do to the story, characters I like. It’s hard to cut these personal gems, even though as an author, I know they need to go if they don’t pull their weight. Some people call it “killing your darlings.”
What is especially difficult is I sometimes find myself in denial about them. I rationalize their importance and find ways to justify their existence. That’s where my fellow writers at Hopefull Monsters come in. Coolly, coldly, they target my darlings for extermination unless I can justify their continued life. If I can’t make them critical to the story, then they need to go, as hard as that may be. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at cutting freeloading gems; in fact I can see the difference between the stories I published two years and the ones I’ve recently sold. Ruthless vigilance is the key, along with a good writing group to call me out whenever I go soft.