Killing Darlings, Purple Prose, & Book Babies by Budgie Bigelow (@BudgieBigelow)

Let me start another writing advice piece by once again stating that I’m not an authorized expert in anything whatsoever. I’m a writer, self-published thus far, and I’m an observer and avid reader. I notice things, and sometimes those things annoy me. In fairness, sometimes they don’t. So, without any more disclaimer action, here’s what’s been on my mind.

As always, use your best judgement when considering listening to me.

Do you read and forward writing advice on social media? Do you share, retweet, or reblog the constant stream of memes and quotes that tell you how to and how not to write? Do you follow the advice of the crowd, using it to mold your own prose? If so, you may suffer from Fad Advice Disorder or “FAD” for short.

Those afflicted with FAD may have read this term recently: “Kill your darlings”. I’ve certainly seen it popping up a lot this last week or so. But I’m not sure the people repeating this piece of old writing advice know what it means.

“Kill your darlings” has been attributed to a slew of authors, including Stephen King, Allen Ginsberg, Oscar Wilde, and (most notably) William Faulkner, and that’s just naming a few. The phrase actually comes from a 1913-14 lecture called “On the Art of Writing” by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

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.’ “

Urban Dictionary has an easier definition:

This literary advice refers to the dangers of an author using personal favorite elements. While these may hold special meaning for the author, they can cause readers to roll their eyes for reasons such as:
-Purple prose
-Egregious overuse of a word or phrase

What I’ve seen recently is that indie authors have taken “kill your darlings” as “kill your characters”.

I’ll admit to a certain amount of research that had to be done here on my own accord, but I’ve seen quite a few authors out there taking this advice to heart, killing off their beloved characters, and getting upset by it. I’ll also admit that I’m more of a fictional sadist than most, trying my hardest to torture my creations on the page. That being said: my characters are not my darlings, and you shouldn’t coddle them like they are.

But isn’t that the point to writing? It’s about conflict, not big-ass gestures of flowery bullshit and happy endings. Not all endings are love and sparkling rainbows. Don’t shoot sunshine up my ass, and I won’t pretend it feels nice. I’m not opposed to a happy ending, but I’m more apt to close with whatever end fits the tale at hand.

Let me get back on topic here.

The real advice here is to keep your reader in mind, not yourself. Just because you like long conversations and lengthy descriptions about unicorn farts doesn’t mean your reader will. That’s a bad example, but you get my point.

I used the phrase “flowery bullshit” a few paragraphs back, and that phrase leads me to part two of this piece.

Flowery writing isn’t a bad thing, though it sounds that way to my macho ears. It means you should add a flourish, a bit of literary background noise, some subtle description to set the scene. There’s no problem with that. What you want to avoid is overdoing it and ending up with a steaming pile of purple prose.

Purple prose is a term my brother taught me. It’s when an author uses over-flowery description when describing something mundane. I haven’t read either series, but apparently Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight are both notorious for slathering it all over the pages. It makes sense seeing as one is a rip-off of the other.

Someone sent me a book for a review a while back. It was actually a collection of short fiction. I read the first story; and the plot was decent enough, but it suffered terminally from over-description. There were paragraphs written for the description of a single object. The one that stuck out to me was the gun the main character held before the heist.

I understand the term “painting pictures with words”, and I’ve brought this up in the past. There are writers, particularly new ones, that stress about detail and overdo it. A gun is a gun. Tell me what kind of gun; revolver, glock, uzi, rifle, etc. If there’s something in particular that makes it special like a splotch of mom’s neon pink nail polish, then that could be added along with how she got nail polish on said gun.

Got it? Good.

Finally, your books aren’t fuckin babies. This term floats around, especially with female writers. I know it feels like your giving metaphorical birth when you’re releasing a book, but treating you book as if it’s your child is sad. I even read a blog post once where a woman described in great detail (and a bit of purple prose) about actually giving birth to her “book baby” the day before her release.

I should end this here now that I’ve probably alienated and offended some of you. In conclusion: kill your darlings if you now know what that phrase means. Your characters aren’t loved ones, keep your prose from turning purple, and your books didn’t spring forth from your gaping womanhood.

Keep writing!

-Budgie Bigelow


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Comments (3)

  1. Reblogged this on Budgie Bigelow and commented:

    I wrote this article for A Million and One Magazine. It’s a harsh dose of reality about writing and doing it (not) well. You should check it out if you’re an indie writer and in need of a healthy dose of tough love.

  2. Love this post! Brings to mind the old adage, “Moderation in all things.” I never understood the “kill darlings” thing but Purple Pose I get. And while a little color is wonderful, a lot is jarring. Thanks for telling it like it is. LOL