To kill, or not to kill?
"Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings."—Stephen King
"In writing, you must kill all your darlings."—William Faulkner
"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."—Arthur Quiller-Couch
Countless authors—famous and not—have warned aspiring writers to cut the crap out of their manuscripts with some version of "kill your darlings." From Oscar Wilde to William Faulkner, creative writing teachers to author workshops, we are advised to murder our most beloved—and probably self-indulgent—prose for the sake of the overall work.
The reason this advice is so often repeated is because it's smart. We can, as artists, be too close to our own art.
But at the same time, it's important to discern the difference between creations we are attached to—for various emotional or egocentric reasons—and personal style/individual voice.
You don't want to mechanically nix all adjectives, eliminate semicolons, substitute grandiose words for common ones, or pander to magic-bullet, how-to-write hype. You don't want to kill your style. Authenticity rocks, and the greatest authors will bear this out. But you do want to mercilessly slash anything getting in the way of your best work—the work you will be proud of.
Hence, THE CRINGE.
You know what The Cringe is. Everybody does. The Cringe is a little devil in the gut rearing its unwelcome head when we come across something we know is not quite good. It's an inkling of a groan. It's a whiff of embarrassment. We don't want to acknowledge its presence because it makes us feel unworthy—as though the months or years of work weren't enough. It points out that we could do better. Maybe we aren't the geniuses we like to think we are. We deny its existence because it's uncomfortable. The Cringe is there to challenge the rationalizing and motivate writers to reach for the stars—not cruise on the ground with the mediocre masses.
You absolutely know (somewhere deep in your bones) when you're being too wordy, indulging in superfluous grandiloquence, using words that don't quite hit the mark, and interjecting content off your style. But attachment to your work (and the fact that these days everyone is overwhelmed with too much to do) can cloud your clarity.
The Cringe cuts straight to the point without crushing style and your own hard-won or developing voice—the point being to do your best. Your best does not have to be perfect. There is no "perfect." But it's YOUR best, at the given time.
How it works.
You're reading through your first rough draft, or you're rereading and rewriting for the gazillionth time. And you get to a point and hesitate. You experience a slight cringe inside. It's as though a really heavy, phantom frog just landed on you, pushing your head down into your chest cavity, and you feel your shoulders hunch and your head sink like a turtle retreating into its shell. (Okay, so I'm exaggerating and using unnecessary similes, adjectives, and metaphors which may or may not be cringe-worthy.) The point is, there is a glitch in the manuscript matrix.
The Cringe may be triggered by a word, phrase, scene, even a slowly dawning realization that surfaces and breaks your reading flow. Your apprehension of what isn't working may be subtle. But however it comes to your attention that something isn't quite right, don't gloss over it—consider it.
Let's say there's a paragraph that upon rereading gets the job done, but seems a little clumsy. You don't have to delete it right away. What I do is hit return a couple of times in front of the pesky paragraph, creating space for a new version, while keeping the old version for reference. This way I don't feel panicky, or get separation anxiety for my work (if you have ever lost writing from a computer crash because you were in the groove and not saving the doc, you will understand).
Then I rewrite the passage with fresh eyes. It's always better.
Sometimes entire scenes or characters have to go. But you don't have to trash those either. What I do is cut and paste them into the end of the ms. where they can be resurrected if needed. But they never are. And it's so satisfying when, after I have rewritten something so much better that incites no cringes, I delete the dubious content in question.
"Books aren't written—they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it."―Michael Crichton
Does it really matter?
Let's face it—the reading public, in general, just doesn't seem to be that discerning. When considering the insane success of certain popular novels, you might think it doesn't matter that much whether a word, paragraph, or character elicits an itty-bitty cringe. There is that much-touted 80/20 rule, which can be effectively applied to endeavors in today's busy world.
But as I see it, it's always a good idea to do your best work, even if you're writing for the trending market just to make bank. And The Cringe is your chisel—chipping away at the marble until your statue of David emerges in the form of your latest book.
Have you ever noticed any last-minute twinges when it comes time to enter your book in a literary contest, submit a ms. to an agent or publisher, or hand it over to an educated, discerning beta reader? You thought you were done, satisfied, good with your work. Now you aren't so confident, or you rationalize that it's "good enough." That's The Cringe speaking.
So imagine, when reading your "final" draft ("final" usually having several iterations) that you are going to hand it over to Stephen King for review. Or Tom Robbins. Or Joyce Carol Oates. Or any accomplished, famous author you like. Any cringes? Any hesitation?
Is your "good enough" manuscript good enough?
It's all good. Or is it?
There is the concept that this is your life and you should do whatever blows your skirt up (I'm quoting myself here :-P). Free expression is a sign of evolution beyond survival, stretching limitations, opening to possibilities, and doing things you never thought you were supposed to do. Screw "supposed to" and go for it—write books, paint paintings, sing songs, invent crazy stuff.
But consider what you publish professionally, what you add into the already saturated media.
And don't confuse cleaning up your manuscript as best you can with obsessing over producing the next Nobel Prize winner. I'm just talking about taking advantage of an awesome tool—The Cringe. You already have it, and it's trying to tell you something.
D. L. Fisher is the author of romantic comedy, quirky fiction, and other random writings.