18 November 2008

Tracking the Baby-killers

Last Saturday I delivered my "Punch Up Your Plotting" workshop at SCBWI New England's ENCORE! session in Providence. Among the plot troubleshooting tips I listed for the attendees was: "Be ready to kill your babies."

The next day's New York Times Book Review included Jack Shafer's comments on Alphabet Juice, by Roy Blount, Jr., which discusses that rule in the form of "Murder your darlings," attributed to various writers. Blount noted the source as Arthur Quiller-Couch, in On the Art of Writing:

You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of [John Henry Cardinal] Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels.

Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: "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."
That is, however, a more florid restatement of advice that James Boswell heard from Dr. Samuel Johnson, quoting an unidentified college tutor:
"[Oliver] Goldsmith tells you shortly all you want to know: [William] Robertson detains vou a great deal too long. No man will read Robertson's cumbrous detail a second time; but Goldsmith's plain narrative will please again and again. I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: 'Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.'"
So if we trust Boswell's memory and Johnson's attribution, we can't name the individual who deserves credit for this writing rule; it's been passed along for too long.

Both forms of that remark involve writing style, when a particularly striking phrase might stand out and distract from the overall piece. But "kill your babies" is also useful in other parts of writing, when the one aspect of a story that you love the most might be throwing everything else off.


Sam said...

Very nicely argued! I've heard a weak variation of this at a journalism conference, but it needs to be presented to reporters more strongly.

There are few things I detest more than news stories larded down with something the reporter thought very clever. (Yes, I have committed this sin myself.)

J. L. Bell said...

Blount’s comment, which Shafer endorsed, was that writers apply the rule too often. He event argues that “Murder your darlings” was itself a “darling” phrase, and in comparison with the Johnson/Boswell formulation, it’s certainly more florid and ear-catching.

That’s why I came down on “Be ready to kill your babies.” Sometimes the flashy phrase, the dramatic scene, the clever twist is just what a story or an essay needs. But if readers notice the technique instead of the content, then it’s getting in the way.