Killing Your (Spiritual) Darlings


All of last year I’ve been engaged in an ongoing effort to get an agent for my novel, No RomanceNo Romance has been with me since Fall of 2011, when I began taking secret notes during my job as a cashier at Home Depot. I wanted to write a novel that would just be fun; my two previous efforts at writing a novel-length story had more (self-)serious aims and I just wanted to write a silly goofy rollicking adventure along the lines of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Satire of adventure stories and pulp fiction, kind of a riff on Indiana Jones and other action movies. Well, in the summer of 2012 I wrote that book, and it was indeed goofy. It was also self-indulgent, nonsensical, without focus, and just did not make sense to people not in my brain with me. When I got a group of friends to do a thorough developmental edit and beat-by-beat critique of the story for me (when I was still convinced the story was genius) I was brought very, very low by their honest reactions. I shelved the project and moved on.

A year and a half ago I returned to it with a new vision for the second and third acts. I rewrote them completely, this time with the experience gained from writing Sea of Chaos the previous year.  Having done so, and receiving positive critical support from some of the very friends who critiqued it so honestly the first time, I started looking around for agents. That was 2015. Let me tell you, the search for agents is painful and humiliating and disappointing. Especially when it lasts an entire year. But eventually you realize that maybe the problem is me.

I shopped what I had with my same writing group, and we realized some changes were in order. Again overcoming emotional lows, I implemented them to the best of my ability, but it still didn’t seem to work. A few agents who I thought would really appreciate it never got back to me, and my hopes were crushed. But just a couple of days before Christmas I got a personalized critique of my opening five pages from one last agent who I felt I’d been led to by the Spirit and who I JUST KNEW would “get it,” and suffice it to say, his rejection devastated me. I tried to convince him to read the rest of the first chapter, where I thought his concerns would be addressed, but he didn’t budge. He said he was going to go with his instincts. And boy was he right.

My wife witnessed my devastation and after I went upstairs to cry and pray and feel sorry for myself, did something miraculous. She read over the agent’s comments and opened up her own personal version of the No Romance document. Then, she took a machete to it.

The first chapter was virtually slashed in half. So many of my details were excised. The lines that I wanted certain characters to deliver to set up the themes of the book were gone. The chapter was stripped bare, not even its skivvies left on for comfort.

The very first time I read it, I was angry. I was offended. I was hurt. What had she, my beautiful wife, done to my book? Was what I had so awful? Was I that poor of a writer? I respected her opinion immensely. She was the best editor of her class at BYU. Extremely talented. And this is what she thought of my book? This was her remedy?

Then I waited. A couple of weeks. And I went back to it. And you know what?

It was ten thousand percent better than what I had.

There’s an old phrase in the storytelling profession, advice to new creative writers: kill your darlings. It means to be ruthless in your editing. Things you love, things that mean something to you, might be the very thing holding your book back from being effective, from being a great story. You might find them more dear to your heart than little Jimmy, but that can mean they stand out to readers like a sore thumb, or that they are getting in the way of a smoother yarn. And you have to be unafraid to kill them. Whether it’s with a machete or a scalpel, if you find yourself treasuring something that much, you very well might need to cut it out of your story. Keep your treasured things to yourself; others probably won’t understand them anyway.

So that’s why Nyssa did for me. She, the genius editor who saw what was there, what was possible, and trimmed the fat—which in this case was about two thousand words’ worth. She was kind enough to tell me that what I had written was not bad writing at all; it was simply excess and unnecessary to getting across the points I wanted to convey. And she was right.

She volunteered to continue the process with the rest of the book, per the agent’s particular suggestions. I allowed her to do so, and this time I watched. Not while she did it (that’s rude), but I compared what she had cut to what I had written. And I started to see it the way she saw it. And more importantly, I started to see it how the reader would see it, and how every agent I had queried over the past year had seen it. I started seeing what was necessary and what was just getting in the way, what was actually good prose and what was just me being in love with my own words—my darlings, you see. And I started to learn to hack and slash away for myself.

The photo at the top is what I did just today to a section that I determined for myself (Nyssa hasn’t seen it yet) was 80% self-indulgent navel-gazing bloat.

Of course, I didn’t only cut—I also had to sew together the pieces that had been ripped asunder. I replaced those longer paragraphs and pages with mere sentences and words, making sure it all still flowed, only this time uninterrupted by my literary excesses.

The results are getting high praise for the pacing and ease-of-read from my writing group every week. It’s been wonderful getting those compliments, but the credit goes to Nyssa for having that vision and having the courage to carve it down, knowing I’d be sensitive. She was the one that pointed out my darlings to me, and conveyed how much better my work would be without them.

I hope you already begin to see the spiritual side of this little parable. That we have our own little spiritual darlings, favorite sins that we hold onto because letting go, cutting them off, is just too hard and we don’t really see the big deal. Habits or behaviors or traditions that we probably have some inkling are ungodly but help us relax or deal with life’s problems and give us a little escape for a bit. Things that we treasure that we know don’t belong in God’s kingdom.

John Bytheway pointed out something very special about the prayer of King Lamoni’s father in Alma 22:

18 O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. And now when the king had said these words, he was struck as if he were dead.

Did you catch that? Lamoni’s father said, “I would give away all my sins to know thee.” What a perfect example of someone who has the courage to kill his spiritual darlings! He didn’t want to just mostly repent. He wanted to repent of all of his sins. Every part of him that would keep the Spirit out of his life. He wanted to root out of himself all ungodliness.

He wanted to tell a perfect story.

The spiritual darling I’m trying to develop the courage to cut out of my life at this time is a couple of sitcoms from the 80s and 90s. I used to watch reruns of them as a kid on Nick-at-Night, and when they showed up on Netflix I would go into phases where I’d just watch certain shows over and over—not just because they made me laugh, but because I enjoyed the company of the characters so much. I felt—and feel—less lonely when they’re around.

The problem is that those characters’ words and deeds are often anything but godly. And that constant ungodliness in the air gets in my system until I’m completely numb to the spiritual toxicity of it, and their behavior seems perfectly normal. I’m pretty sure my personal stance on the law of chastity won’t be changed by their actions, BUT—what am I doing hanging around people whose stances are in such direct opposition to mine? What am I doing patronizing a television show that probably contributed directly to the normalizing of casual sexual relationships in America? I don’t know, I like them, that’s all! When they’re not making light of sex, they can be pretty good and all right people!

So clearly, I’m still trying to deal with that. Comfort sins are indeed sins, but they are also comforts. Mac ‘n Cheese might be unhealthy, but it does transport you back to childhood for a time. Spiritual darlings might need to be excised, but they really are darlings.

But of course, reliance on such escapes is reliance on the arm of flesh—not on God. And I have to figure out how to emotionally detach myself from these television characters whose company I love so much. I have to learn to kill that darling of mine.

So take some time to do an inward search and see what your spiritual darlings might be. Then check if they’re getting in the way of the story the Lord is trying to write of your life. If they are…take up some fresh courage and with it a machete, and hack away. Your story will be better for it.


One thought on “Killing Your (Spiritual) Darlings

  1. Nice post.
    Based on one of your fb posts recently I think I know one of the shows that your are watching. Reading your use of the word “patronizing” reminded me of an encounter between two of the characters about patronage vs patronize. I


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