There was a man I knew. I’ll call him Tom. Oh, he was a sweetheart, truly the nicest man you could meet. Granted, he had questionable taste in music, and an endless repertoire of bad jokes. His wardrobe tended to orange jumpers, circa 1972, and he was a bit of a plodder. Still, he was generous to a fault, would go out of his way to help a friend, and you couldn’t ask for a better man in a tight spot. I was very fond of him. Why do I tell you this? Because yesterday I murdered him.
‘Tom’ is a character in my new novel. When he first appeared, he was little more than a convenience. Like TS Eliot’s Prufrock, he was good to ‘Swell a scene or two’. Later, he popped up again, rather to my surprise, and this time he hung around. I found I liked him. Despite his annoying qualities, he had a real warmth. He was the kind of chap who would drop everything if you needed him. Yes, I know he wasn’t really real. But he was real to me and I mourned his loss.
I remember reading something by William Goldman, it may have been Which Lie Did I Tell, in which he spoke about writing the novel, The Princess Bride. He said he saw himself write the words, “Westley was dead.” He stared at the page. How could Westley be dead? He was the hero. Goldman went outside and cried like a child. For days he couldn’t write a thing. He was mourning his hero. (Later, it transpired that Westley was only mostly dead. Phew!)
If you don’t write, you’ll probably think Goldman and I are both nuts. That may be true, though I don’t think we are nuttier than any other writer. If you write, you don’t need an explanation. If you don’t write, no explanation will ever make sense.
When Arthur Quiller-Couch, AKA ‘Q’, (No, not the one from James Bond) advised his students to murder his darlings, he was speaking of prose. Those long, florid passages much loved by new writers. We’re talking “Dark and story might” territory. “Extraneous prose”, Q called it. Get rid of anything in the purple range, be it lilac or aubergine. Fiction should not be showy. The story is what matters. He said:
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.
Of course, Q is talking about stylistic, rather than narrative choices, but either way the rule applies. Sometimes in stories characters have to die and so do your favourite phrases.
The point is you have to make choices and some of them are hard. If you spend hours writing pages, it’s very hard to delete them. But if they are a detour for the story; if they interrupt the flow; if they are too showy, then you know what you have to do. Yes, you’ll weep over the loss, but your story will be the better for it.
So be ruthless. Pick up those scissors. I’ll never tell.