It’s an old saying in writing circles, kill your darlings. The instruction is not to commit filicide – thank goodness, because there are writers out there who would seem prepared to do anything for a bestseller – no, it means cut out the best bits of your writing.
Whenever you think your prose has hit the most wondrous heights – delete it. The reason that’s usually given for this is that if you love those words so much, then you have lost a sense of objectivity and that’s dangerous. If all that fabulous language isn’t moving the story along efficiently, then it’s got to go whether you love it or not. It can’t just sit there looking pretty. Unless you're Zadie Smith.
The phrase is usually ascribed to William Faulkner and an earlier version - murder your darlings - originated from a lecture at Cambridge University given by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’
I recently had cause to murder a real darling in the final rewrite of my new novel Powder Burn. Originally it contained several viewpoint characters, but in this last go-around I’d decided to strip it back to just two. One of the consequences was that my favourite scene in the entire book had to go, because it was written from one of the deleted points of view – oh, the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth...
Anyway, I couldn’t let it die completely, and here it is... but reading it again a couple of weeks after the act, I’m glad I did it. It was written for the book’s original audience of snowboarders and mountain folk. I’m hoping that the final version of Powder Burn will reach a wider audience, and this scene might have driven them away.
The set-up is that a character called Vegas has climbed a mountain in the Himalayas to attempt to be the first person to ride a snowboard back down it. By the time he’s got close to the top and into position for the descent he’s not in good shape, exhausted and with the stirrings of altitude sickness. Will he climb back down, or ride to his destiny? And what will that destiny be?
He knew what he was there to do after the months of planning and preparation. He must climb and ride. And nothing, not even the bowel snake of fear, was going to stop him. This was his last chance, and every cell of his body knew it. He moved over to the edge and started looking for a place to get down into the chute as he ascended those last few yards. He dragged himself upwards until the cornice on top of the main ridge began to tower over him. He couldn’t go any further, and there was no easy step down, at least none that he could see. But it was only a couple of yards and so without really thinking about it he jumped. He landed flat on his back, and sank into the snow.
Given the steepness of the slope he had jumped onto, it now occurred to him that he was lucky that he hadn’t hit a hard crust. Otherwise, he might well have started the first descent of Powder Burn on his ass. He lay there for a long while, the sun giving the illusory impression of warmth, while he struggled again for breath. It would have been easy to fall asleep. Just to slip away, rest his weary body. But eventually, he remembered that he was there for a reason and he sat up. He wrestled to get the pack off his back, but the snowboard was strapped to it and the tail had dug deep into the snow. He couldn’t work out why he couldn’t drag the pack round in front of him. He floundered, digging a deep hole until finally he got his arms out of the straps and rolled clear.
He stared at it for a while, anger subsiding. Then he fiddled with the strap buckle that was holding the board onto the pack, but it wouldn’t set at the angle for quick release. He pulled a mitten off and tried again, then fumbled until he found a way of pushing the strap back through the buckle an inch at a time. After what seemed like an eternity of effort the board was loose. He set the edge into the snow so the board sat perpendicular to the slope and kicked his feet into the bindings. The hard plastic straps were easier to deal with, and he got them ratcheted up tight with relative ease. He was ready. What about the headcam on his helmet? There was a switch. He wasn’t taking his mittens off again. He reached up and fumbled, fingers thick through the cloth and cold. It felt like he got it. Whatever.
He stared down the chute. The walls seemed to be getting closer together, moving in on him like some giant car crusher. His breath rasped in the neoprene face mask. The backpack - he turned and found it lying behind him. The ice axes were still strapped to the outside. He’d forgotten those as well. The quick release buckles chose to work. He stuffed the axes handle-first into the snow and struggled into the backpack straps, then looped the axe leashes around his wrists. He adjusted the goggles, pushed at the face mask. Then there really was nothing else to do. He had to go.
He stood up, and immediately the board started to slide sideways down the mountain under the extra weight. He was pushing a gathering wall of snow in front of him and already gaining speed, reeling at how steeply the slope fell away beneath him. It crossed his mind that he could just cruise down like this. Then he remembered Lens and the camera, and a switch clicked in his brain. He had never stepped back, never bottled a drop or a jump or a run. He flicked his hips and his board pointed straight down the slope.
The acceleration was a familiar sensation, and the trained responses kicked in from thousands of hours of riding. But never before had he dealt with this much gravity, at this altitude. The adrenaline rush flushed through him with the avalanche of raw sensation, of clumsy response. Of nerves and muscles doing whatever they could to keep him upright and pointing down the hill. Somewhere, there was a voice saying - put in a turn and slow it down, this is the limit of control. But the chute walls were a fuzzy black blur and with the tunnel narrowing and quickening and flashing past on either side with terrifying closeness, the fear of blowing the turn and hitting the wall rose like bile and drowned even that shred of conscious decision making. It was all he could do to control and respond to the board, the snow. The froth of fear and reaction pushed the voice of experience under for the last time.
Then he fired out of the bottom of the chute and the run didn’t look so threatening. It was wider and the wall on the left hand side had disappeared. It didn’t matter that riding over the cliff was just as fatal an error as slamming into the rock – he felt the psychological pressure of making the first turn ease. He gently put some pressure onto his toes to push into a turn away from the wall. He was on perfect snow and the board – yabbering and hammering at his legs - responded. Now it flashed through him. He realised what was beyond the edge ahead. He didn’t panic. He just pushed a little too hard instead of rolling into another turn. Even then, it was far from disastrous. The board was hitting the snow with too much angle and too much speed. But it could have just bitten deeper into soft snow, slamming into a huge, thigh-jellying power slide that if controlled, would, if nothing else, have finally slowed him down.
But some confluence of snow type, temperature, humidity, wind, and geography ensured that his board dug only so far into the snow before it hit a layer of ice. The edge started to skid along the top of this harder surface, while the snow above it let go of its frail grip - just as it would in an avalanche. For all the resistance it provided at this critical moment, it might as well have been on roller bearings. He felt nothing more than the sudden rush of acceleration and a moment later, along with a couple of hundred pounds of snow, he flew off the edge of the mountain and out into space. He was falling, spinning in a whirl of powder, unable at first to comprehend what had happened. But he had a long way to go. Time to realise that he was all done. That there was nothing left to hope for, save a miracle landing. And perhaps more realistically - that it wouldn’t hurt. There was a feeble blip of anger at his error, then resignation. No screaming, no histrionics, becalmed in utter helplessness, then nothing.