I’ve been a teacher for fourteen years, which means many things: a lot of time spent at desks, grading papers; a lot of the same conversations about the same concerns, applied to various students; a lot of chocolate and mugs given as gifts at the end of term. It also means a lot of time assembling, through both careful curation and careless inspiration, an arsenal of bromides to help students navigate recurring issues in their writing. There are few writing adages more frequently repeated than “Kill your darlings” (variously attributed to Chekhov, Wilde, Faulkner, and Stephen King, but ultimately the work of Arthur Quiller-Couch). Maybe “Write what you know” or “You can’t edit a blank page” are contenders, but lacking the murderous flair of “Kill your darlings,” I think they might only rate a close second.
But maybe, just maybe, the conspiracy against darlings is finally on notice. In her role as guest instructor at Alpha Workshop, Alyssa Wong shared this message with her awesome sfnal pupils:
I love Alpha Workshop. They’ve nurtured the growth of my former students, Ana Curtis and Surya Cannon, and introduced me to other fabulous young Alphans like Kyra Boisseree and Alina Sichevaya. Combine an Alpha tweet with an @crashwong authorship and you’ve got a favorite guaranteed, as far as my feed is concerned. But I retweeted Alyssa’s message because of how deeply, utterly true it felt to me, as a writer.
I’ve been guilty of telling students to cut one thing or another from their work for practical reasons — something is long, confusing, contradictory, distracting, breaks tone, shifts tone without cause, whatever. But I’ve tried not to do this too often because ultimately, what we love in our own writing is the very thing that brings us back to do the work day in and out. Those little pieces of ego spur us to confront the blankness of the not-yet-written. It’s not easy work. You have to love something about it to keep showing up.
I’m grateful to Alyssa and Alpha for sharing this message, because it validates the author over the reader. We know already that the reader matters. So much of writing workshop culture is built up around the authority of readers, it can be difficult to balance that power against an author’s desires, and that balance is crucial. After all, the reader is as imperfect as the writer, and elusive, to boot. Each is unique, and for every confluence of opinions and tastes that helps create “a market” for a story (“Hey! A f/f historical mystery set in occupied Japan! We’ve been looking for that!” – sidebar, if there is such a thing out there, please shove it in my face) there are divergences that diffuse a monolithic “market” into individual readers with their own reasons for ultimately not enjoying something that seemed tailor-made to their tastes (“Oh, no, did you hear that it’s totally a Bury Your Gays thing, though?”). Just as writing a story intended to charm all readers in a workshop – boring none, offending none, surprising none – results in pablum no one wants to consume, writing a story and then culling out of it the things that gave you joy, the parts of your style that make you love what you can do with the space between your ears, is counter-productive.
There’s a joke in Chez Townsend that if there was nobody around to stop me, all my fiction would run a bit like this bit Eddie Izzard does on tension and conflict in British cinema. Go ahead and watch it. I’ll wait.
I don’t get mad when my husband, always a first-flight reader of my work, looks up from the screen to tell me the characters are arranging matches again. If anything, I find ways to help them do it more often (though maybe I break it up and sprinkle it around differently, after a good beta read). My ideal book would be about 50% action/adventure with 50% Matchstick Interludes. Arguably, that’s about what the Thieves of Fate series is shaping up to be, and I like it that way. I love my characters to have deep-seated issues, to live surrounded with unspoken things and tension that could whet a blade to blurred blue edge. I love that crackling chemistry. I love questions half-answered, and wordless understandings, and all of that stuff. I want my reader to do a bit of work, because that’s the work I want to do when I read. I want that emotional gymnastics routine as a counterpoint to the espionage, the heists, the Machiavellian scheming, the running-for-your-life pursuits and back-alley ambushes. And I think, for the most part, my ideal reader wants that, too. So you’re welcome.
Or maybe that’s not what you want in a book. And that’s okay. But I know I’m at my best when characters are tangled and thorny, both within themselves and within the conflict of the plot. Anyone who tells me to take that out of my work, well. That’s one darling I’ll never kill.
I hope every Alphan takes Alyssa’s words to heart and plunges deep into some writerly self-love. I hope the rest of us can indulge in that too. We spend so much time worrying over approval of others; spending a little more approving of ourselves is long overdue.
Hey, if you’re a Goodreads user and are keen to get an ARC of The Nine, enter this giveaway between August 1-9th, 2017!
Also, if you’re getting interested in The Nine and can’t wait until November (and really, it’s coming up fast!), consider up-voting it in the Goodreads Most Anticipated Adult Fantasy Debuts of 2017. We’ve made it all the way up to (you guessed it) Number Nine as of the writing of this post. Thank you!
And if you’re looking for a way to help more writers (particularly young ones) find the thing about their work they love, consider donating to Alpha here.