Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Kill Your Darlings

For the longest time, even though mystery novels and short stories were among your favorite reading, even though you were in fact editing a number of mystery writers, and were well on your way to becoming the regional president of The Mystery Writers of America, you came to the point of giving up writing mysteries because you had trouble killing characters off.  Even though they were not real, they were nevertheless supposed to appear real.  Didn't that count for something?

Of course it did, and it took a temporary run of being broke and an opportunity to get over being broke by writing Nick Carter novels to make it possible for you to kill off people--although it is true, you were given editorial notes suggesting that a few more corpses would be welcomed.  In those days, you frequently named your murderer after the chairman of your department at the University, thinking to yourself that he would not be likely to read such material, and so, emboldened, you had him use poetry readings to transmit information to his operatives.  You also named high schools after your friends and threw in all sorts of personal references.  Mysteries do that for you.

One of the first times you heard someone, some critic against whom you had a deep personal grudge, utter the phrase, "Kill your darlings," you thought it appropriate such advice would come from such a person, reeking as it did for you of her smug inference that  one should never leave things in one's work that one enjoys with such great gusto.  You later heard other critics for whom you had respect come to the same admonition, causing you to revisit the intent, which you came to see as, Don't be so fucking precious.  You have a great wish to enjoy yourself and in large measure find writing an opportunity to do so without being fucking precious, by which time you were able to move on to the next plateau, easing your way back toward the mystery with the notion that prime targets for characters on their way to becoming corpses were in effect your darlings; kill off your better characters.

This approach had you nervous when you found yourself liking a character too much.  But you believe you've come close to being able to move on to the next plateau.  As mentioned earlier, your being away from your mystery in progress, which is all about privilege and entitlement, caused you to undertake a rigorous biographical study of your main character, his family background, and how he evolved to be the kind of protagonist you need him to be for a mystery.  It did not hurt that your literary agent liked him well enough to see him as a potential for a series.  So there you are, writing a biographical sketch of a fictional character, thinking this would not be so boring if you were to dramatize it, begin seeing it as action rather than description, and thus you find yourself, not only with five chapters of the prequel to your novel but with a corpse on the first page, plausibly discovered by your protagonist.  You are in some ways farther ahead on this one than the one you set aside momentarily to cope with the edits on your about-to-be-published project.

You had a character set up as a likely subject for becoming a corpse, until you did something quite else to him, which appeared to save him from his death rattle; you had him fall helplessly in love with someone to whom his past behavior has been at the least reprehensible.  But in some ways, this has made him your darling.  Thus do you circle about him, tentative in your desire to keep him going a bit longer,hopeful someone else will come along, pointing at himself or herself, saying, "Me. Me."

Your editor in your nonfiction book asked you in the kindest way to remove one of your favorite words, aper├žu, from the nonfiction project.  Okay, one darling--dead.  If you could do it there, you should be able to do so in the second mystery.  As of this writing, having a corpse on page one of the prequel has given you an unexpected gift.  You now believe you have the title and the thematic vector for the prequel.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

mysteries constitute nearly my whole reading world, always have, apart from my time as an Eng lit major and my love of nonfiction. And yet I can't seem to get there as a writer- I continue to try my hand at literary fiction. My lit friends don't understand my love of mysteries so it remains my hidden passion when we talk writing. The conventional wisdom is to "write what you like to read" so where does that leave me? It's a mystery. I need a mystery readers anonymous group to talk it out.