#Secondthoughts: Kill Your Darlings

If you follow the writing community on Twitter, and indeed on other social media I expect, you will frequently see bits of advice done up nicely, almost like a little gem of a motivational poster.  Nice font, an appropriate pic, the whole shebang.  Some are new-spun, most are bon mot or bon juste extracted from the sayings of well-known names, some still alive, some no longer with us and some from quite a long time ago.

I’ve noticed that should you be so inclined, you could probably do a nice bit of meta-analysis and group such advice into a relatively small number of sets.  One of these is “Kill your darlings”, although this is probably an extreme version of “make them suffer”, the point is that you need to be prepared to be horrible to the characters you love, not just the ones that you think deserved to be offed.  This isn’t just a case of editing out a secondary character who just isn’t pulling their weight, oh no.  You might have to kill off a much-loved character…

“Make them suffer” is justified on the basis of making the character grow.  I don’t know how much Dickens actually liked Sidney Carton as a character, but he did “kill off his darling” in order to show how much the character had grown – “It is a far better thing I do now, than I have ever done before”…  But is making your character suffer, and even die, all that it sometimes seems to be?

Two thoughts before we continue.

  1. I watched Strike recently, the TV adaptation of the first two ‘Cormoran Strike’ novels by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling).  I guess I’ve broken the first rule by watching the adaptation before the book, but to be honest, whilst I love a detective novel, when I saw the brouhaha when the book was launched, I really couldn’t be bothered, not even with after seeing this summary.  I quite liked the show: the casting was brilliant, and the key actors brought a warmth and humanity to the whole thing which meant that I didn’t feel that I’d wasted my time watching it. But.  The whole thing was clichéd beyond the point of being ridiculous, and frequently made my teeth itch, which was a shame.  Cormoran Strike, in particular, is such a bundle of “let’s make his life difficult” ideas that it is no wonder that he drinks so much, and incredible that he ever gets anything done.  If an alternate turned up in a Jasper fforde novel, he would probably be there to take industrial action.
  2. Do things always need to grow to be worth reading about?  As an example, lets look at P.G. Wodehouse.  It’s difficult to find as much energy expended to return things to the status quo as you find in a P.G. Wodehouse story once the balance has been tipped, and yet the stories remain popular, to the point that they are almost imprinted on the collective consciousness.

As with most things to do with writing, at least part of the answer is probably to do with your audience.  Sticking with detective stories, sometimes you want something quite cerebral with an unexpected detective being brainy and pulling the strings, and sometimes you want roof-top chases.  Sometimes it’s all about an every-person blundering into things and sometimes it’s the trained detective doing it by the book and getting on with the job (albeit guided by their gut/nose/other part of the body as appropriate).  You could argue that Miss Marple goes through some kind of growth – she has to learn to accept the success of her nephew and the consequent financial support that he provides and she has to deal with her increasing fraility.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that death is a part of life, and we shouldn’t not talk about it – an unexpected character dying in an unexpected way should shock, but not be shocking, if you see what I mean.  But as writers, and indeed as readers, we should be open to other forms of shock, and other forms of growth.  People die every day – the “crude death rate” is currently under 1% (81 people in every 10000 per year) – but it doesn’t affect everyone, everyday.


© David Jesson, 2017

Advertisements

#secondthoughts – David Eddings

David Eddings, if you’ve not come across him before, is one of the big names in fantasy.

#Secondthoughts is a series that Debs and I are starting to explore writing: the journey of, reactions to and reflections on writing.  We’re hoping that we’ll be joined by others along the way.  For this inaugural one, I’m going to reflect on a body of work that has probably had a huge effect on how I think of Fantasy novels and the second thoughts I’m having now that I’ve got my eye in as an editor (day job, mainly) and now that I’m getting serious about my non-job writing.

David Eddings, if you’ve not come across him before, is one of the big names in fantasy. He has written about not one, not two, not three but four separate fantasy realms.  Up front, I’m going to say that it later transpired that his wife had a big hand in co-writing almost all of the books he wrote, but when they were starting out the advice was that a husband and wife team/multi-authors would be problematic, so only his name appears on the books.

I started reading the Eddings’ books when I was in my early to mid-teens – I think that’s probably true of most of the readership. They were still writing into the early part of the new millennium, but by then I’d moved on for all sorts of reasons, so I didn’t get round to reading the last series, The Dreamers.  I might one day, but the TBR pile is pretty big (and growing).  Anyway, when you’re that age, the Fantasy trope is pretty much a given, especially if there’s a bit of magic, some sword play and the world to save.  And the Eddings oeuvre was pretty readable: a friend loaned me the first four books in one series (The Belgariad) and I was itching for the final book, so when I stumbled over a copy in bookshop I bought it and read it straight through twice in less than 24 hours.  I think I got the entire second series (The Mallorean) for a birthday and read the lot over half-term.  There were a fair few summers when I would undertake to read the whole lot through again.  It was a similar story (excuse the cliche) a few years later when I started on the Elenium and the Tamuli.

What really works for me about these series is the world-building: whole nations are involved, in some cases whole continents.  There are numerous cultures, some of which are intimately bound up with their local geography and geology.  There are some brilliant and memorable characters and, as I write this, in my mind’s eye many of the scenes from the novels are evoked and play out.

The journey of my second thoughts begins with a stand alone novel, the Redemption of Althalus.  At university I was reading for a degree, spending a bit too much time on archery and reading a lot of new things (I really shouldn’t have worked my way through six books of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in one semester).  A few years along and one of my friends at archery was also a big reader and a big fan of Eddings and several other of my favourite authors.  (Bonus points if you know why she was put out when I proposed a toast to the Walker Evans Memorial Society, whilst minding the barbecue…).  She was a big fan of RoA.  I’d been putting it off, I can’t remember why now, and even then it took me quite a few years to get round to reading it, but I eventually did, in part because of the remembered recommendation.  It was absolute tosh, and not the good kind.  I think that my friend had latched onto a particular character, and forgiven the book a lot of its faults.  There are some really good ideas in there, but my guess would be that the book did not have an editor, or if it did, one that couldn’t stand up to the writer.

Roll on a couple more years and I decided to sit down and reread the Belgariad.  I couldn’t do it.  The magic, the glamour was gone.  I found the writing verbose and clunky, it didn’t have the same flow.  Maybe I’ll give it another try in a few years.  We’ll see.

O _ o

So, my second thoughts on the writing of David and Leigh Eddings: there are some really great ideas in there, and if you are an aspiring writer, particularly of Fantasy, you can learn a lot about world building.  I’d also suggest that you can learn a lot about writing – clearly they were doing something right, given the number of copies sold and the significant fortune left to charity when they died.  But I also think that there are lessons to be learned about how not to write. For example there might be a couple of tropes that aren’t used, but I’m not sure what they are off hand…