Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Monday, May 13, 2013

Kill Your Darlings

"I'm beautiful, I'm literary, please don't hurt me."
It was William Faulkner who said it. The venerable Samuel Johnson said something very similar. It really refers to lines or phrases, but can sometimes involve whole scenes.  Received wisdom is that, if you come across a line or a phrase that makes you puff up your chest at your own literary or poetic brilliance, many accomplished writers and editors believe it probably needs to die.

First, I want to own up to the fact that I have not always followed this piece of writerly advice and I still don't. But I think I've come to understand the rationale behind it a little better, and I have killed my fair share of darlings more recently, and shifted others.

I'm concerned with the 'literariness' of my writing.  I care a great deal about the poetics of my work. I spend time frantically trying to avoid the many cliches to which it is so easy to resort when writing erotica. When I write sex scenes, I obsess about approaching them from at least a slightly fresher angle than most of the erotica I've read. I don't believe my reader needs to be given a blow-by-blow description of intercourse, and I have a deep faith that language itself can evoke eroticism, and that you can brew metaphors that become new sites of eroticism for your reader.

But pride comes before the fall. I'm going to sound utterly arrogant when I say that I have forged erotic imagery that felt like it shone on the page, that made me think, 'wow, you're a fucking good writer'. The problem is that a lot of readers thought so too.

How can that be bad?

Well, it can. Because the moment you've forced a reader to look away from the story and think, 'fuck, what a brilliant writer I'm reading, how poetic, how eloquent!' is the moment you just kicked them out of the story. You've just interfered with your reader's engagement with the fictional world in order to show off.   It's literary narcissism and it means you're more concerned with literary bukkake than telling a good story.

Let me give you a brilliant example of a darling that sorely required execution. It's from Rowan Sommerville's "The Shape of Her."
"He grasped the side of her hips, pushed her away and pulled her to him with a slap. Again and again with more force and velocity. Tine pressed her face deeper into the cushion grunting into the foam at each thrust.

The wet friction of her, tight around him, the sight of her open, stretched around him, the cleft of her body, it tore a climax out of him with a final lunge. Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her."
After being awarded the Bad Sex Award for this passage, Sommerville defended himself by saying it was a literary allusion, an homage to Vladimir Nabokov, who had been an avid amateur butterfly collector.

At this point, I hope you're saying 'who gives a fuck about your literary allusions?' because you have every right to. Readers deserve better than literary in-jokes and canonical masturbation. The last line is both literary and fucking awful.  If you were anywhere near being aroused by the passage, that line killed your mind erection stone dead, unless you happen to be one of the very few entomology fetishists out there.

Admittedly, I've never written anything quite so eloquent or out of place as that. But I once described an orgasm thusly:
"I can feel my orgasm long before it arrives, a plane in the distance and my body the control tower. The landing lights in my belly light up to guide it in. Gary's cock has grown huge inside me and there's a pleasant dull pain each time he thrusts upwards."
Oh, good god, what possessed me? Landing lights? Control tower? What was I thinking? And yet, at the time, I thought it was a wonderful metaphor. It just felt so 'right'.

Another problematic darling is the encapsulating and eminently quotable line. Rather than kill it, consider shifting it to either the beginning of the story, chapter or scene, or the end of one of those. It probably is a great line but if you impress your reader so deeply with your pithy, perfectly worded brilliance, same deal. You impress the reader with your linguistic abilities, but you interrupt their relationship with the story.

And this is not about you or how brilliant you are; it's about the story. So, when it comes to your edits, read through your piece and find those lines, phrases or passages which make you want to give yourself a manly, Hemmingway-style pat on the back. Ask yourself who is truly served by that line or phrase. Is it serving the story or  your own writerly ego?

14 comments:

  1. Dare I say it, brilliantly put!

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  2. It reminds me of the time I wrote the line: "She was the piece of unwanted grit in his lubricating jelly."

    My (then) editor sent me an email asking, "What the hell were you thinking?"

    I sent an immediate apology :-)

    Ash

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    1. Kathleen - if I'd thought you were going to read that title I'd have insisted it was left in ;-)

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    2. Oh lord. Yes, that's... gritty.

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  3. I've been accused of being a little too enthusiastic about murdering my darlings by someone who has seen my second drafts. There's just no getting it perfect, is there?

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  4. Excellent points! However, I think there are writers who lack confidence and err on the side of a lack of faith in their own expression. Just because you like and/or connect with a part of your writing doesn't mean it's necessarily always bad, right?

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    1. Definitely not! But if it's sitting there sticking out like a sore thumb, screaming 'I'm so brilliant', then I think you can consider moving it to somewhere less disruptive. :P

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  5. Oh RG! xxoo! LOL! "landing gear" you know I never really read a bad one from you, that I can recall?

    Point well taken, though...

    huggles

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  6. My earlier work was considerably more "literary" than what I've been writing lately. I was prone to long, elaborate sentences, extended metaphors, and frequent alliteration.

    The more I write, the shorter my sentences seem to become, especially when I'm focusing on action rather than mentation. I *think* this is an improvement, at least from a story perspective.

    I wish you'd provided more examples in this post, though. The particular metaphors you've identified are obviously awful, but I'd love to consider some more marginal cases.

    On the other hand... I've had cases where I've been stopped cold in admiration by a turn of phrase (often in stories by Shanna Germain), without that detracting at all from my appreciation of the story.

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  7. I get what you're saying, and the lepidopterist thing is worthy of a Bulwyr Lytton award, but oh the humanity.

    I love language. I love it. Beautiful prose, like Angela Carter, Isabel Allende, Vladimir Nabokov, definitely you on a lucky day (I've seen it happen and admired) is one of the great pleasures of literary reading. Maybe its a pleasure because its rare. Like you, I've stopped cold reading a passage by, say, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and just sighed with solemn and secret happiness and wondered how I could steal it.

    lepidopterist ?

    You can't blame them for trying.

    Garce

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  8. Obviously you've inspired us, RG! The examples you've given are hilarious, but if you write: "They met, they ripped each other's clothes off and they fucked," the reader might be thrown out of the story by the LACK of style, artistry and effective metaphor. So as Kathleen asked rhetorically, there seems to be no perfect middle ground. (BTW, I actually like the long sentence by Bulwer-Lytton that starts, "It was a dark and stormy night." It establishes atmosphere.)

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  9. You've made some excellent points here and given me much food for thought. As an author who's just published my first short story, I know I have plenty to learn, but I've been writing for a long time and generally just write whatever feels right to me at the time. It gets harder (if you'll excuse the pun) when you start reading up on the dos and don'ts of erotica writing, with all the words you 'should' or 'shouldn't' use, and then half the time not everyone agrees on those words. I think the trick is somehow finding readers who enjoy the types of descriptions/sex scenes you write.

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