So, I Killed a Darling
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
An entire chapter of WHERE YOU WILL DIE, put out of its misery.
Accomplished authors and teachers of the writing craft all agree: Good writing is rewriting.
"I rewrote the ending of 'Farewell to Arms' 39 times before I was satisfied." - Ernest Hemingway
As to what makes good rewriting, all agree that cutting is key. Cut every page, paragraph, sentence, or word that does not belong, that does not accomplish something for the story.
"When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done." - Stephen King
And, speaking of murder, an oft-quoted maxim of writing advice tells the aspiring author to do exactly that:
"Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings." - Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
Writers can, in good faith, disagree as to what makes a bit of writing a "darling". Commonly, it is said to be any text that confuses the reader, but is something you, as the author, absolutely love. Oh, you think to yourself, this is so clever! I'm being so deep (or edgy, or innovative with language, or whatever). You write it, you edit it, you love it, but along comes a reader who wrinkles their nose, looks up at you and says, "Huh?"
Another type of "darling" is a passage that is not confusing, but serves no purpose. You write something you love, and yes, maybe it is beautiful, lyrical, comic or dramatic, but it does nothing to further the plot, or deepen the characters, or make the setting real. It's just a side-trip in your story, and you want to keep it simply because you love it. You love it simply because you wrote it.
I found one in my book. So, I had to kill it.
The final editing of my novel, WHERE YOU WILL DIE, is going exceptionally well. I am on track with my plan, coming in to the final two weeks of work. But I was nearly waylaid when I faced a difficult decision. Rereading and rewriting the book once again, after four years, at least a dozen major edits, and hundreds of tiny tweaks, I saw it, plain as day. An entire chapter was a darling, and it had to go. I agonized over it, going though stages of grief, but in the end I pulled the plug.
So I offer it here, a memorial to the Death of a Darling, should you have the time and inclination to read it.
The Story So Far: Alan Wright is a self-styled minister who moved to the small foothill town of Eden Ridge to build his spiritual center and live a quiet life. His best friend, Ruth MacKenzie, has been murdered (see my earlier post, "Sneak Peek - Opening of WHERE YOU WILL DIE"). He has taken on the role of amateur sleuth to bring her killer to justice (typical of every "cozy mystery" story). Jewel Sinclair is the managing editor of the local paper, who has joined him in this quest. At this point, a bible has turned out to be a key bit of evidence, and it's missing. Jewel is driving them back up to Eden Ridge from the valley town of Bidwell, where they questioned an expert in antiquities about the bible.
And now, read on.
“This is a very, very nice car.” Alan ran his hand over the contoured arm rest and admired the many gadgets on the instrument panel as Jewel accelerated onto the Ridgeway, passing the last traffic light between Bidwell and Eden Ridge.
Jewel smiled. “Thanks, but it’s the same car I drove us down in.”
“I know” he said. “My brain was too busy then to notice.”
“Papa bought it for me when I came back from DC. I’m almost embarrassed to have it.”
“It’s so expensive. He’ll be making big payments for three more years, and he won’t let me take them over. I don’t need something like this. An inexpensive compact would do me fine.”
Alan said, “I’ll bet it’s top rated for safety.”
“Yeah. How’d you know?”
“I’m a dad. It’s a dad thing.”
Jewel nodded. “I didn’t have a car when I was back east. I lived in DC proper, with a metro stop on my block. I got around fine. A car would be more hassle there than it’s worth.”
“Cars are a hassle, period” he said. “By the way, thanks for driving us today.”
Alan reached for his wallet. “I’ll give you some gas money.”
“No, you won’t.”
“C’mon. Gas is expensive.”
“You hand me any cash, it’s all going out the window.”
He smiled and closed the flap on his pocket. “Well, okay, when you put it like that.”
“You don’t owe me” Jewel said, stressing the word ‘owe’. “I’m not doing you a favor. I want to do my part. For Ruth.”
He smiled. “Thanks. That means a lot.”
She said, “I know.”
Driver and passenger met eyes. Neither looked away. The car veered left, tires touching the lane line. A high-pitched alarm blared, making Jewel gasp, steer right and let off the accelerator. Her face flushed as she gulped a breath.
“Good reflexes” Alan said.
“Thanks. Good car.”
“Your father loves you.”
Halfway up the ridge the terrain steepened and the road drew closer to the ragged, lava rock edge of the canyon. Alan gazed out over the ridge at the slanting, late afternoon light.
“Hey, how about a stop at Vista Point?” he said. "Do you have time? It’ll be a nice sunset.”
“Sure. I have time.”
After a short silence, Jewel said, “So, you’re a dad?”
“Um-hmm. A son. William.”
“Yeah, twenty-nine this year.”
Alan grinned and nodded. “Yeah. That’s what I said.”
“What does he do?” Jewel asked.
The questions reminded Alan he was with an accomplished, ambitious journalist. “He’s a nature photographer.”
“For a magazine?”
“Freelance. Magazines, travel agencies, calendars. He’s got a book out, too. A coffee table book of western national parks.”
“You must be proud” she said.
“I’m happy he’s happy. All he ever wanted to do is travel, and he found a way to make it pay for itself.”
“Where is he now?”
“Been a while since we’ve talked, so I’m not sure.” Alan fished his phone from his pocket. “He’s with a big environmental group, documenting climate change. Last I heard, he was in Greenland.”
He tapped and swiped the cracked glass. The screen froze. “Gah, this phone” he mumbled. When it came to life, he found a picture of William Wright. He held the phone up. “There’s Will, a couple of years back.”
Jewel took a quick, careful glance, then nodded her approval. “Handsome guy.”
“Anything beautiful in him comes from his mother.”
“How long since you’ve seen him?”
Alan stared at the photo. When the screen went dark, he raised his eyes to the horizon. “It’s been a while. We’re not on the best terms.”
“I’m sorry” she said, “I didn’t mean…”
He waved a hand. “It’s okay. His mother’s death hit him hard. Hit us both hard. I went into a kind of tailspin. He didn’t blame me, but… well, you know.” His voice trailed off.
“I’m sorry, Jewel repeated.
Alan forced a smile. “Thanks.” He pointed and said, “Hey, there’s the turnoff.”
Jewel pulled into a turn pocket, waited for a truck to pass then steered into the gravel lot. They got out and walked to a line of massive boulders, a barrier along the edge to thwart suicides. The afternoon waned but the sun had not yet added color to the clouds. A stiff breeze rose from below and over the rim, sending Jewel’s hair flying. She took an elastic band from her jeans pocket and tied it into a ponytail.
Alan closed his eyes and pulled the cooling air deep into his lungs, spreading his arms wide with his palms open. With a long exhale he lifted his arms into prayer hands over his head, then lowered them to rest at his sternum. The last air left his lungs, but he did not draw fresh breath. Jewel watched a struggle play out on his face before he dropped his arms to his sides, inhaled, opened his eyes, and smiled.
“What’s that” she asked, “a prayer?”
“Yes and no. Just a little something to remind me.”
“Remind you of what?”
“That I will die.”
He grinned at her. “At the end, I have no air in my lungs. I don’t inhale for as long as possible. It reminds me that one day I will exhale and never again inhale.
Jewel made the face of a child offered broccoli. “A bit morbid, isn’t it?”
“We screw ourselves up by pushing away thoughts of death. Ignoring it, or trying to outsmart it, or hating it and fearing it causes nothing but trouble. After all, nobody gets out alive.”
She nodded. “The great equalizer.”
“Yep” he said, then in a sing-song voice, “Great or small, high or low, he comes for us all, and we all gotta go.”
“What’s that from?”
“I just made it up.”
“Oh, bull.” Jewel’s smile was bright and wide.
He mirrored her grin and said, “As you wish.”
The western clouds took on the first pale yellows and pinks of evening. A breeze gusted again, cooler now, the air in the valley below under shadow.
Sunsets take their time until the finale. When Sol reaches the horizon, the axial spin of the earth is visible as the edge speeds past where light can reach. The chameleon clouds surrendered paler shades to turn golden, then orange and red. Alan and Jewel watched the pageant offer a curtain call, the closer and higher clouds now reprising the pastels of the opening number. The star of the show reached the tops of the far-off mountains and made for the exit, waving goodbye with kaleidoscopic arms reaching over their heads. Neither noticed the other smiling at the sight.
As the curtains closed and the house lights dimmed, an ache tapped on Jewel’s heart.
“Poor Ruth” she whispered.
She kept her eyes to the horizon, her profile cast in the waning light. “She was so loved, so respected. But there were people who, well, not that they hated her, but who didn’t like her, or trust her, or something.”
Alan watched as her features fell into shadow. “Nobody is loved by everybody.”
“Yes, but her own daughter?” She faced Alan with fierce eyes.
“You were never angry with your mom, or dad?”
“Well, sure, as a kid. I didn’t know better.”
Alan decided to pry a bit himself. “When you were angry with them, what set you off?”
Jewel again set her gaze west. It was almost dark, the glow on the far edge of the world like a dying campfire. “Well, I guess it was because they didn’t let me do something or have something.”
“Um-hmm. When people don’t give us what we want or do what we think they should, we get angry. We judge them.”
Jewel said, “A lot of people were judging her. Anna and Cesar, Rosi, even Williams, with that crap about her being senile!” The dimming fire on the horizon fanned into flames in her eyes.
“She had something they wanted” Alan said, “and she didn’t give it to them.”
Alan turned back to watch the final flickers of sunset, saying, “The Bible is part of it. But what she never gave was her obedience. She wouldn’t knuckle under.”
Now Jewel watched Alan’s profile, nearly lost in the gathering dusk. “You think that’s why she was killed?”
“That’s what got her killed, but there’s something else.”
“She wasn’t the real target.”
“No? Who was?”
Now full dark, a final breeze reached them, cold, insistent.
“I’m not sure. It’s getting late. Let’s head back to town.”
© Craig Allen Heath
More to come. Thanks for reading.