When I first started writing fiction, I had a penchant for overly detailed descriptions. In one story, I included a scene set in a tearoom. I described the table cloth and the centerpiece, the china and the stemware, the curtains and the chairs. So vivid were the details, I was sure I’d painted a perfect picture in words. I wanted the reader to smell the fresh red roses, visualize the hand-painted lilies on the tea cup, touch the delicate lace on the pink tablecloth, and envision the pattern of the cut glass water goblets. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be right there in that tearoom, sipping Lemon Delight tea and feasting on tiny sandwiches and petit fours?
I sent the story to the wonderful editor/mentor with whom I was working and
patiently waited for her critique.
At last it arrived. To my dismay, she had circled the entire paragraph and boldly penned: “You need to kill your darlings!” She explained that I’d gone overboard in my descriptions. I needed to take most of them out. Cut, cut, cut. I should kill my darlings! Delete ALL those beautiful descriptions. My darlings!
Painful, yes, but it was the right thing to do. A reader would have been bored to tears (or sick to her stomach) if she had managed to read even half of the tearoom description.
I still tend to over describe. One of my critique pals is kind enough to point this out. She has advised me to kill my darlings in several works, and she was correct.
I’m currently trying to place a flash fiction story. In a piece fewer than 750 words, every word counts. Each sentence has to move the story forward. There’s no room for fluff.
In one section, I wrote about a woman checking out items on a dresser in a friend’s guest bedroom. My critique partner said, “Would she notice all these details?” And I had to review it with a critical eye and conclude, “No.” The woman would notice everything on the dresser, but she wouldn’t think of the objects as I’d described them. She wasn’t admiring the items as tasteful and lovely; she was up to no good.
So I cut the descriptions down to bare bones. In the first draft, I’d written: “Pale amber perfume shimmered in a crystal bottle.” It now reads: “A crystal bottle held perfume.” Much cleaner and tighter, the new sentence expresses my character’s POV.
I know that the term “Kill your darlings” is frequently used by editors. I understand what it means. But will I ever learn? Will I ever deny entry to those darlings in the first place? I’ll try harder. I need to be a little more ruthless in my work. Well, a lot more ruthless.
Darlings, I hate to see you go, for you were charming and beautiful. You sparkled. You made me smile. But you were bringing me down, and I’m better off without you.