Kill Your Darlings

Plucked from the mind, offered up by a muse, or dropped from an invisible creative current swirling in the universe, the birth of an idea never loses its lustre of wonder. The spark of a concept can exhilarate, spawning smug conviction that no other being—out of the nearly eight billion that populate this planet—has had a similar thought. Or at least, not one nearly as brilliant as the one you’re currently holding. We covet these droplets of imagination as if they are gifts from the gods (they very well could be), hoarding our shiny pearls of ingenuity like Gollum and his precious Ring. We convince ourselves that we must protect them, at all costs, often confusing tangents for the broader idea. And even when my precious begins to feel flawed or starts to lose its shimmer, we’ll still cling to it out of desperation for when will the next idea emerge? Or worse, what if it never does?

Fear is the killer of creativity.

It’s easy to fall into this trap and many young creatives feel this burden most of all. Hell, I’ve been there many times. And though years of watching your sweet little nuggets get pulverized by pros with mounds of experience can undoubtedly build up an imperviously thick skin, when you’re on your own, alone with your thoughts, and left to your own devices, it’s not so easy to know when to pick up the hammer.

So you dig in because you’re feeling good, hell even great, so why stop this love fest now? You can always sort out those annoying little kinks later, right? Wrong. Those kinks will jam up your entire flow down stream and no amount of digging your feet in will solve this conundrum or stop this ship from ramming into the shoreline.

Much of the creative process is based on a leap of faith. To convert whispers in your mind into tangible pieces of art is no easy feat. It takes courage and silencing of a lot of self doubt—Is this even good? Will people get it? Can I do this? Who the hell do I think I am??—before putting into motion the output that is required to write a novel or a screenplay, or director’s boards for a motion shoot. And you will, like the countless creatives before you, come to a point in your journey where something just doesn’t quite feel right. You can choose to ignore your Spidey senses and keep trudging along, or you can pause, pull back, and view your work from a bird’s eye perspective. And after a few deep breaths and a walk around the block, you will be forced to make a decision.

Kill your darlings.

So what do you do when the idea you birthed—that sparkly, wonderful thing that fell into your lap and stole your heart—is giving you issues like a kid with the “terrible twos?” You take a step back. Way the hell back. When you’re too close to something, it’s hard to understand the root cause of the problem. Take off your artist glasses and put on the audience’s pair. Maybe the character’s tone is not hitting the right notes or the casting is off. Maybe you’re trying to invoke a time period but it’s feeling too current. Or perhaps it’s as easy as clipping off some of the story so it’s tighter and more coherent.

As I continue with screenwriting and longer narrative works, keeping the larger vision—THE STORY—as my guiding beacon has become paramount. The more characters and subplots that enter my worlds, the more easily I find myself swayed from my story’s true north. Staving off the charms of those tangents can be tricky and I have to remind myself that I am here to serve the story, and protect it above all else.

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.

STEPHEN KING

If you’re seeing issues now, they will be glaringly obvious later to the third party who isn’t privy to the conversations going on in your head. Here, ignorance is not bliss but a sweat-inducing nightmare. So face it head on. Identify the weak spots and lay your options for solutions on the table.

In his 1916 book On the Art of Writing, British writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote: “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.’”

Remember that hammer you were supposed to use but didn’t? Yeah, it’s time to bring that bad boy out. Stephen King, one of the masters of storytelling and my personal writing hero, wrote this in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

If the elements in your story—written or visual—do not support and strengthen the overall vision, kill them. It’s that painfully simple. Putting in hundreds of hours of your time, or worse, other people’s time, only to find out the issue you’re having could’ve been resolved weeks ago, doesn’t do anyone any favours.

MasterClass also recently put out an article based on this very subject. It’s geared more towards writers but the principles can be applied to any creative endeavour. Iteration is key. Revise your work as many time as necessary before production. I’ve shared complete mood boards with my team only to revise them a few day’s before a shoot, and vice versa, I’ve had clients tweak things on set even after signing off on them during pre-production. Don’t be afraid of (or angry at) iterations. As long as everyone is kept in the loop, is understanding of the reasons behind the revisions, and the budget/timing hasn’t been impacted greatly, there shouldn’t be an issue. Yielding a stronger vision—a stronger story—should always, always be the goal.

Preparation is key.

There are artists who fly by the seat of their pants and there are those who plan. I don’t care how much of a rebel you are (or think you are), but no great, commissioned piece of artistic work has made it to the public without a hefty amount of preparation. “Winging it” doesn’t cut it with the big dogs.

Find the person or people who will champion you through your creative journey.

Every medium will have its own form of prep: research, sketches, compositions, scouting, mood boards, outlines, drafts, pre-production…you get the idea. This is pure playtime. It is in these precious weeks and months that you get to see what can be and how it can be. You may be bound by some parameters if working off of a client brief, which is to be expected. If you’re creating a work of fiction, you are virtually boundless (unless you’re an independent film director/screenwriter and your budget won’t allow for the heavy VFX needed to create your alien planetary system).

I’ll use the example of a photoshoot. You have a concept for a series of images. Everything from the location to the casting to the colour palette to the wardrobe/props styling has been dialed in, only to find out on set, it’s not vibing. But it worked so well in the mood board?! You protest. Still doesn’t change anything. The theory-to-practical conversion is not hitting the mark. You stare at your team. They wait for your direction. Then comes the anxiety-loaded question: What now?

And this, my friends, is where all that preparation comes in handy.

Having options will save the day. Thinking of plans B and C logistically may be the producer’s job but you should be as equally prepared. This is your vision after all. But the biggest lesson here is to know when to call it. If something is off, don’t waste time (which equals money) trying to force fit an idea instead of pivoting and finding a different solution. Your team and client will applaud your problem solving skills and you’ll be celebrated for your quick thinking prowess.

Find your people.

My best friend and writing partner (and accomplished writer, Emmy-winning producer, and brilliant creative in her own right), Stef Ferrari, has been my person for years. She’s not only edited my work in the past at Life & Thyme and co-authored A Woman’s Place (Little, Brown and Company) with me, but she’s been my sounding board and cheerleader every, single day. She knows who I am and what I’m capable of, and when my internal demons of self-doubt rise to the surface, she’s the first to swat them away and simultaneously give me swift kick in the pants to get me back to writing again.

Find your Stef. Find the person or people who will champion you through your creative journey. Even the most hermit-like writers need someone to read their work before it can become a novel. Artists need not be tortured into believing they must suffer alone. If you plan on making a living doing the craft you love, you’ll need a team cheering you on from the sidelines.

Story above all else.

Though it may be obvious to some that iterating one’s work is a vital process of storytelling, I still want to emphasis one key point as to why: iteration moves you up the tree and away from low-hanging fruit. Think of it as your very own ladder of progression (very mystical, I know). The first scribblings of an idea always seem the shiniest and often, our ego’s tendency is to congratulate ourselves for a job well done even though we’re just beginning our creative quest. Don’t be complacent. This is not the time to settle unless mediocrity is your end goal. Turn your pretty precious around on its head; look at it from every angle; push that little nugget further (a bit more…keep going…) so it moves beyond the expected into something truly remarkable.

Thirty to sixty percent of a rough diamond’s weight is cut before it becomes market ready. And just as a raw diamond gouged out of the earth must be chiseled and polished to become its most brilliant self, so must a story be cut and shaped for it to captivate and hold our audience’s attention. Killing your darlings may sound a bit sadistic but in the context of creative work, it is the necessary evil to make your story shine.

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